Diane Buchanan lives with her daughter and her grandson in an apartment in Philadelphia. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, she recently told a committee of the Philadelphia City Council, her daughter lost her job as a hairdresser, leaving Buchanan to carry more of the burden of rent and bills. Schools closed, and her grandson started learning from home. The refrigerator stopped working, and the landlord “slow-walked” the repairs for months, she said. She started thinking she might get evicted over the dispute with the landlord. She thought she might be able to move in with her son, but he had a one-bedroom apartment — a dangerous situation during a pandemic. She also might be able to move to California and live with her brother, but she didn’t want to rely on him and lose her independence. Then she got a text message from a housing counselor, saying she was scheduled for a pre-eviction mediation with her landlord.
“I was really surprised because I didn’t believe it was real,” Buchanan told the committee. “I didn’t know what it was.”
At the end of the summer, Philadelphia launched an Eviction Diversion Program, requiring landlords to request a mediation session with tenants before filing for evictions. The program was created as part of a package of emergency housing-relief bills passed by the city council in June. It builds on work that the city and nonprofits were already doing to help tenants and landlords work through disputes before meeting in court, which Next City reported on in the spring. Paired with new laws giving tenants a chance to enter nine-month repayment plans for past-due rent, and with an emergency rent assistance program that was in the works even before the pandemic began, the diversion program has helped prevent dozens of eviction filings over the last few months.
According to data provided by City Council Member Helen Gym’s office, a sponsor of the program, 399 mediations have been held to date, resulting in 261 agreements so far. Another 29 mediations concluded with the parties agreeing to continue negotiating, and only 17 have resulted in no agreement being reached. The outcome hasn’t yet been recorded in another 82 cases. An additional 320 mediations are currently scheduled or in the process of being scheduled, according to the data. For tenants like Buchanan, mediation has been a chance not only to stay in their homes, but also to talk through grievances they might have with their landlords. Through mediation, Buchanan agreed to pay her rent on time every month, and the landlord agreed to replace the refrigerator.
“I felt like I was being heard, and someone was listening to me,” Buchanan told the committee. “No one was dismissing what I was saying.”
Many eviction lockouts are currently banned under a CDC emergency order, but some courts are still processing evictions, raising fears about what will happen to vulnerable tenants when the CDC order is lifted. In Philadelphia, courts have paused evictions through the end of the year. Over the weekend, Congress agreed to extend the federal eviction moratorium through the end of January.
The city council voted this month to extend the Eviction Diversion Program through the end of March. In the meantime, it’s hoping to work out a deal with the municipal court system to have the diversion program run by the courts long-term. Gym has been promoting eviction-prevention efforts in the Philadelphia City Council for several years, helping to create and fund the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project in 2017 and, last year, sponsoring Philadelphia’s legislation creating a right to counsel for tenants facing evictions. That groundwork, along with the pilot low-income rental assistance programs that the city had already planned and the emergency eviction moratoriums that the state and federal governments passed earlier in the year, gave the city a chance to help tenants who were especially vulnerable to losing their homes when the pandemic began, Gym says. The early outcomes of the Eviction Diversion Program show that it’s a program worth keeping after the pandemic ends, she says. It’s better for tenants to stay housed, for landlords to recoup rents, for the city to avoid additional costs related to homelessness, and for the court system to reduce the number of landlord-tenant cases in its docket.
“The goal of having the diversion program be pre-filing is to specifically avoid an eviction,” Gym says. “It’s both efficient and desirable to find alternatives other than seeking an audience before the courts.”
Sue Wasserkrug, program administrator for the Good Shepherd Mediation Program in Philadelphia, which provides mediation services for the diversion program, says it was a challenge at first to schedule all the mediations that landlords requested. The program relies mostly on volunteer mediators, and Good Shepherd had to find and train dozens of new volunteers once the program was launched. Under the emergency laws, landlords are required to accept nine-month payment plans for tenants whose inability to pay rent is related to the pandemic. But in some cases, Wasserkrug says, landlords have agreed to stretch payment plans out to 12 or 18 months. Occasionally, tenants actually want to leave their apartment, for any number of reasons, and so the mediation becomes focused on determining an “exit strategy.”
The mediation process during the pandemic has been eased by the fact that, for one thing, it’s required, but also by the availability of rental assistance, and the fact that landlords are less likely to want to vacate their units during a pandemic, Wasserkrug says, making it more likely that tenants and landlords can come to a mutually acceptable arrangement. But she hopes the program will outlast the emergency.
“The hope is that it will become the new normal,” Wasserkrug says.
After landlords request a mediation prior to filing an eviction, a housing counselor from one of the counseling agencies working with the city reaches out to the tenant to prepare for the meeting. Most of the time, says Janaya Lewinski, a counselor with the Tenant Union Representative Network, the conversations involve talking through the details of the tenant’s finances and making sure they’re prepared to take on a repayment plan. She says she encourages tenants to be as realistic as possible, accounting for all their bills. That way when they get to the mediation, they know what they’re able to agree to, Lewinski says. She says she’s been struck by tenants’ resilient attitudes, often hearing some version of, “Ma’am, I’m going to figure it out.”
“From my experience thus far, it’s all people who are really working their asses off to stay in these units,” Lewinski says.
Housing advocates remain fearful about what will happen when all the emergency moratoria are lifted. And some rental-assistance money provided through the CARES Act needs to be spent by the end of the year, including in Philadelphia, as the New York Times reported last week. But officials hope that initiatives like the Eviction Diversion Program can be kept in place long-term.
When whey were approved, “both the moratorium and the diversion program were an incredibly important tool to meet the crisis of that moment,” Gym says. “But they spoke to gaps that already existed in the system.”
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our twice-weekly Backyard newsletter.
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.