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Panel Urges Landlord, Court Collaboration To Divert Evictions

By Emma Whitford · 2023-01-20 15:24:59 -0500 ·

The success of any court-based program aimed at slowing down or preventing evictions depends on strategic communication with landlords and courts, in addition to tenants, according to a recent panel on eviction diversion programs across the country.

Speaking at the livestreamed "Next Generation Eviction Diversion Programs" panel at the Legal Services Corporation's Innovations In Technology conference Thursday in Phoenix, Samira Nazem of the National Center for State Courts explained how to pitch a diversion program as a familiar and reasonable court offering.

Such programs existed prior to the coronavirus pandemic but have multiplied substantially in recent years, in part to distribute federal rental assistance, she said.

"Many courts have expressed ... 'Is this improper to provide space to an entity only serving one side of the case?'" Nazem said. The solution, she continued, is to emphasize the information-sharing and referral aspect.

Rather than providing tenants with attorneys directly, courts are "simply providing information about how a tenant can access this resource, and that's something that's completely appropriate and within the purview of what a court can do," Nazem said.

Panelist Alexa LeBoeuf of Cosette Consulting, which is providing technical assistance to a diversion program in Hamilton County Court in Chattanooga, Tennessee, described how she pitches the program as a benefit not only to tenants, but also to landlords, noting that she is a landlord herself.

"Nobody loves eviction court," she said. "Nobody wakes up in the morning — judge, plaintiff, landlord, tenant — and thinks, 'This is my favorite day of the week,' right? When we started having people in eviction court willing to triage resources and work with folks and find alternative solutions, landlords took notice, as well as plaintiffs' attorneys."

Hamilton County is among 11 localities receiving a total of $4.2 million in grant funding from the National Center for State Courts in 2022 and 2023 to support eviction diversion programs. Applications for a second round of funding are poised to open this month.

Nazem said the goal of the programs is to provide extra time, information and resources to tenants in order to resolve eviction disputes with minimal harm. This does not always mean that a tenant facing eviction will remain in their apartment, however, she clarified.

"It would be a disservice to not mention that, in many situations, a tenant will move out," Nazem said. "Our goal is that the court can simply find a way to give them a little bit of time and some support to do that in a less damaging, harmful and traumatic way."

Successful diversion programs insert "off-ramps" into the standard eviction process, providing opportunities such as mediation and rental assistance along the way, according to Nazem. In Washington, for example, landlords are required to send tenants a notice about mediation before they can file an eviction case.

Once a case has been filed, some courts have agreed to pause or slow down the eviction process. In Indiana, for example, if parties agree to participate in a diversion program, the case is stopped for 90 days.

Yet, Nazem stressed that a program will only be effective if tenants facing eviction have the information they need to come to court in the first place and access services.

Panelist Cathy LaPorte, an eviction prevention facilitator at the 61st District Court in Grand Rapids, Michigan, another grant recipient, described a flier her team sends to businesses and nonprofits in zip codes with the highest concentration of eviction filings.

Tenants can scan a QR code on the flier with their phones in order to complete an intake form to access diversion services.

But while technology can be helpful, LaPorte acknowledged challenges. For example, during the pandemic, judges in Grand Rapids have been holding so-called first hearings over Zoom. Tenants are sent into virtual breakout rooms where they can learn about rental assistance options and speak with a lawyer.

Yet, not everyone knows how to log on. Going forward, her team is hoping to create a flier that will help explain the process.

"We're finding that a strong amount of the calls that we get for our diversion program is how to access that Zoom hearing," LaPorte said.

--Editing by Melissa Treolo.

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