The mechanics of Louisville's eviction mediation pilot program
With rising rental prices and eviction cases mounting, Louisville has now joined cities across the U.S. in launching an eviction mediation program. The pilot program, which is unlike its peers in other cities because it puts the onus on landlords to apply, is expected to run through June 2024.
When an eviction case gets on a docket, it comes at a major cost to both tenants and landlords.
Louisville Metro Government’s new pilot initiative aims to mitigate that with an eviction mediation program, which the city allocated $2 million for from federal American Rescue Plan Fund dollars.
Laura Grabowski, interim director for the Office of Resiliency and Community Services said the initiative would help save time and money for both tenants and landlords and reduce tenants’ chances of getting an eviction record.
“We were trying to look at the continuum of services needed, and more eviction prevention was needed. It helps to have a third party mediator to help tenants and landlords work out issues with payments,” she said.
But there are limits to the program. Landlords are the only party that can sign up for the mediation. Additionally, applications are restricted to cases of past due payments.
Here’s how to apply:
- Landlords can request mediation through the resource page at StopMyEviction.org.
- Landlords and tenants will then have to fill out an online assessment ahead of their appointment. Cases unrelated to past due payments will not be accepted.
- The parties will then meet with a mediator in person.
- If a resolution is reached, both parties will sign a legally binding agreement pledging to honor their end of the agreement.
- If a resolution is not reached, landlords will receive priority on the next Friday's eviction court docket.
The city has contracted with resolve:Restorative Practices LLC, where Shannon Floyd is the principal mediator.
According to Metro Government, the city has received 120 requests for mediation since June 1, and Floyd said some are producing success.
“When I say successes, I mean a mediation settlement agreement where a landlord and the tenant, they both agree on how to resolve the problem in a way that they both benefit from,” she said.
This agreement between the landlord and the tenant is legally binding, and emerges from a two to four-hour mediation process where the tenant, the tenant’s attorney, the landlord and the session’s mediator explain the situation and come to an agreement on the best course of action.
The process, Floyd said, starts with setting rules of engagement that both parties must agree to ahead of the mediation. “Those rules include speaking respectfully to one another, not talking over each other. And the mediator can terminate the process if either party violates the rule,” she said.
Floyd would then draw up a document that would ensure the mediation process is confidential, that what would be discussed will not be subpoenaed in court, and that any notes from the mediation would be destroyed once an agreement is reached.
Tenants in mediation who have not already reached their 18-month limit through the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program would be eligible to receive funds to pay back rent.
Grabowski said the city has documented 17 cases that have received or will receive rental assistance funds as part of the pilot program.
Concerns from advocates
Since the pandemic began, cities across the U.S. have invested in eviction diversion programs like mediation between landlords and tenants.
In Louisville’s program, the onus is on the landlords to voluntarily sign up and on tenants and their attorneys to convince them. And that can present a challenge in an uneven power dynamic.
Floyd explains one of the common reasons a mediation fails before it begins is when a tenant and or a landlord fails to complete a pre-mediation assessment form five days prior to the scheduled mediation.
“On that form, the landlord signs off on agreeing to not to file an eviction against the tenant during the process. So sometimes it falls through because of that right there,” she said.
Eviction Lab researcher Emily Benfer said she hasn’t seen any other programs across the U.S. do it that way.
“That’s a major deficit. That could create a major gap in the program in terms of the ability to increase access to justice, create housing, stability, and make sure that all parties are served,” she said.
Grabowski, interim director for the Office of Resiliency and Community Services, said it was the city’s stipulation that only landlords could apply.
“We know that landlords are the ones who file the evictions, so we’re trying to market this towards the landlords before they file the eviction and make sure they’re willing to participate.
What can Louisville learn?
Lexington’s new eviction mediation pilot program operates a little differently than Louisville’s. In May, Lexington expanded its housing stabilization program to improve tenant access to legal counsel and mediation services. It developed from a pilot project run in coordination with Fayette District Court Judge Denotra Gunther.
Louisville Metro Council enacted aRight to Counsel ordinance in April 2021, a program that provides free legal representation to low-income renters.
And Metro Council expanded eligibility requirements for the program in February.
Benfer said connecting more tenants to legal assistance should go hand-in-hand with the pilot mediation program in Louisville.
“Even in a mediation, it’s very hard to understand your (a tenant’s) defenses or when you actually don't owe as much as the landlord is claiming you do, and you can better advocate for yourself if you have legal representation,” she said.
Grabowski said the city was initially considering connecting mediators with judges similar to Lexington, and chose to reach landlords. She said the city could be open to reaching tenants.
“The hope is that we could expand this to not just being a pilot and we’re looking at how to target tenants and how to help tenants to get their landlords to participate,” she said. It's expected to run as a pilot through at least June 2024.
So what does it take for a mediation program to succeed? Earning and retaining trust, especially from renters, Benfer said.
“One of the reasons why two cities, Philadelphia and Boston were so successful is that they hired organizers to go and talk to people in the community, and really build trust in the program. Lack of trust in a program happens because of how harmed people have been leading up to this point,” she said.