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Fair Housing Center Offering Landlord-Tenant Mediation

By La Prensa Staff

TOLEDO, August 1, 2020: The Fair Housing Center is doing its part to ensure no one loses housing due to economic hardships brought on by the coronavirus epidemic. The agency launched a free mediation service in May to settle disputes between landlords and tenants out of court.

 

The need for such a service has grown in recent years, but the launch during COVID-19 came at a crucial time for many tenants facing job loss, a delay in unemployment benefits, and economic disaster that could lead to homelessness. Many local governments instituted moratoriums on evictions, but many of those are only temporary fixes and could end, leaving many in the lurch.

“We deal primarily in the realm of housing discrimination cases—civil rights cases where people are either being denied housing or being treated unfairly because of their protected class,” said

Sarah Jenkins, director of public policy and community engagement for the Fair Housing Center. “I think we are recognized as a community resource, so people reach out to us for a lot of different housing needs and housing issues.”

That includes landlord-tenant disputes. The agency receives hundreds of such calls every year, which have to be referred elsewhere, such as Legal Aid—and can end up in housing court. The free mediation service serves as a gap-filler and can keep a lot of those cases from plugging up the court system. Those issues are commonly when a landlord refuses to return a security deposit or fails to fix a sink, furnace, or some other repair.

“Our call volume has increased tremendously over the last few months. It’s very, very clear that there’s a lot of critical housing issues going on,” said Ms. Jenkins. “With eviction moratoriums in place, so landlords were not able to evict people and you had a lot of tenants, because of job loss or other financial hardships, weren’t able to pay their rent. So we were seeing things like ‘self-help evictions,’ where landlords take action to try to force somebody out, but not using the legal eviction process.”

Those tactics include shutting off utilities, removing belongings, changing the locks, sudden rent increases, or imposing new fees or penalties landlords weren’t charging before. Ms. Jenkins called them “troubling and predatory practices resulting from the frustration of landlords not being able to file an eviction and having difficulty collecting rent.”

But there are also complaint calls where tenants find themselves in “very vulnerable and distressing situations,” such as sexual harassment, according to Ms. Jenkins, where female tenants have been asked for sexual favors in lieu of rent.

“Some of these women are low income or have children,” she said. So the threat of having their housing taken away is a very real threat. Those kinds of situations can put somebody in a very difficult spot.”

“What we’re talking about is issues that arise before people get to court—before an eviction is filed, before rent is put in escrow,” explained Ms. Jenkins. “These are common issues that hopefully can be resolved and maybe prevent the parties from having to go to court.”

Lucas County Commissioners gave the program $140,000 in startup funds and an anonymous donor chipped in another $50,000. The Fair Housing Center hired two mediators to directly begin handling cases without a need for referral.

“Nationally, you have a housing crisis going on right now, because you have a lot of the eviction moratoriums and other protections put in place are starting to be lifted, if they haven’t already. Yet people are still struggling financially,” said Ms. Jenkins. “So, we’re definitely facing a situation where people might be evicted or displaced, at least. So, the hope of this program is to try to prevent evictions by trying to resolve issues before it gets to court.”

Many times, the issues boil down to a misunderstanding, lack of communication, or a broken promise. A mediator can bring the two parties together, give them a chance to talk through their issues, and voluntarily reach some sort of compromise or work through a solution. Other benefits include its informal and confidential nature.

“The mediator is not there to impose some sort of solution on the parties. The mediator is there to help the two parties reach a solution on their own,” said Ms. Jenkins. “It’s not somebody telling them they have to do this. This lets both sides work out something that’s agreeable.”

There’s no capacity at present for judges or magistrates to refer cases to the mediation program. All the work will be done pre-litigation, before attorneys get involved. The fact of the matter is, many tenants cannot afford an attorney, while landlords don’t want to go to the expense of eviction and trying to find a new tenant. Both sides have financial incentive to participate.

“You end up with this disparity, because when you get to court, the majority of the time, landlords have legal representation and tenants do not,” said Ms. Jenkins. “That creates an inherent inequity and most of the cases are ruled in favor of the landlord. By the time you get to housing court, it’s going to be a detrimental situation for the tenant.”

A lot of tenants either don’t know about or understand the escrow process, which can be both confusing and cumbersome. The escrow process also leaves those repair issues in limbo while the case works its way through court—which could involve an unsafe situation for a family.

“One of the benefits of mediation is you’re not going to have that long, drawn-out process,” said Ms. Jenkins. “We’re going to be able to get you in quicker, get you a solution quicker. The issues can be resolved in a much timelier fashion. It’s more cost-effective, too, because it’s free.”

There’s an education component to the mediation program, informing tenants and landlords of their individual rights and responsibilities in that relationship—notice of eviction, security deposits, when the landlord can enter an apartment, among the more important issues.

More information can be obtained about the mediation program by calling the Fair Housing Center at 419.243.6163 or by downloading a brochure at the agency’s website: https://www.toledofhc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/TFHC-Landlord-Tenant-Brochure-Pages.pdf.

 

 

 

 
Copyright © 1989 to 2020 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 08/13/20 07:55:42 -0700.

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