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Report: Mandatory mediation saved hundreds of tenants from eviction

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A new report finds a mediation program that started early in the pandemic has kept tenants in housing better than mediation alone.

"I think we expected that the program would have success, but I think we were surprised with how much success it had," said Ray Kong, legal director for Lawyers for Equal Justice and Hawaiʻi Appleseed.

Hawaiʻi put an eviction moratorium in place at the start of the pandemic, but it was lifted in August 2021. To prevent evictions, the state passed Act 57, which required landlords and tenants to go to mediation before eviction.

Combined with COVID-era rental relief programs, the program prevented more evictions than either method alone.

“We know rental assistance and rent relief was a huge contributor, but the data shows that it was not the sole contributor," Kong said. "We know that because during COVID, there were some repossession cases that went to mediation — so the lawsuit had already been filed. And even though rent relief was available to them as well, only 20% of the cases that settled there resulted in ongoing tenants. Whereas the Act 57 mediation, which is pre-litigation, resulted in 85% of the tenants staying.”

The study found that 87% of Act 57 cases resulted in settlement. That's compared to 47% of pre-COVID summary possession mediations, and 52% of summary possession mediations during COVID.

The report also noted that mediation over video conferencing had little negative effect on the outcome, and may have been a better format for tenants.

"It reduced the amount of time involved in the process. They didn't have to commute to a courthouse, find child care, leave their job," Kong said. "So that whole extra transportation time period that's usually required if you're going to go and mediate in court is a disadvantage, is completely avoided."

"We also felt that the video conferencing — and this was confirmed by those who participated in it, the tenants — they just felt more comfortable," Kong said. "We speculated, 'Yeah, it should be less intimidating than having to go to court' — someplace you're not familiar with, standing in close proximity to your landlord, who you're now in a combative situation with, standing near their attorney. Generally, it's kind of intimidating, you know?"

The Act 57 program ended in August 2022. Kong said Hawaiʻi Appleseed will be advocating for a permanent rental relief program that includes mediation to stabilize affordable housing.

"Our overall goal is to advocate for a continuation of some form of rent relief program and really start changing the mindset and thinking — that rent relief was just for COVID," Kong said. "But instead, understanding that some type of relief and assistance should be a permanent part of stabilizing affordable housing."

Jason Ubay is the managing editor at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Send your story ideas to him at jubay@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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