Problem-Solving Housing Courts

Building a Problem-Solving Judiciary: Social Services in the Courthouse

by Leya Elias and Michelle Hull 

Shifting the Role of Housing Courts

Housing courts are designed for eviction rulings. Rather than addressing the reasons why tenants are unable to pay rent, the court only offers three solutions: fining the tenant, evicting them, or – at best – allowing the tenant to stay in their unit. Because housing court fails to provide tenants with the services to prevent recidivism, tenants don’t leave court equipped with the knowledge, support, or financial stability to ensure that they are able to pay their rent, which can lead to repeat evictions or homelessness.

Providing holistic, in-court solutions would save money, time, and tears for landlords, tenants, court systems, homeless shelters, and social service organizations. We are reimagining housing court as a hub for social services during and after evictions. An intersectional problem deserves an intersectional solution. 

Solution 1: Eviction Diversion Programs 

What: An Eviction Diversion Program (EDP) is a radical alternative to housing court designed to provide holistic services for tenants and landlords. To quote an article about Chicago, Illinois’ EDP, EDPs  “avoid potential eviction judgments by facilitating mutually beneficial agreements between tenants and landlords.” Although the services EDP pilots provide vary based on funding and need, all EDPs provide rental assistance. 

Who: Both tenants and landlords must opt-in to an EDP. 

When: EDPs are available to tenants and landlords after tenants have received an Unlawful Detainer notice and before a Judgement of Possession is ruled. 

Where: There are currently nine EDP pilots in the United States. They can be found in Chicago, Illinois; Durham County, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; Jackson County, Michigan; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Lansing, Michigan; Detroit, Michigan; Oakland County, Michigan; and Macomb County, Michigan. EDPs can take place in courthouses, civic centers, or in community organizations. They can run as a parallel service to housing court on their court date, or they can help tenants and landlords before attending court. 

How: The user experience of an EDP differs from court-to-court. Here is an overview of the process: 

  1. Tenant learns about EDP. Landlord/tenant both opt-in to participating in the program. This can happen in two different ways: 
    1. The landlord learns about the EDP while filing nonpayment action with the court. The landlord agrees to participate in the program if the tenant is also willing. 
      1. The tenant receives an Unlawful Detainer notice. The UD packet includes information about the EDP. The landlord has already opted into the program, so the tenant can then decide whether or not they want to participate. 
    2. OR The tenant receives the UD packet. Information about the EDP is included. 
      1. The tenant contacts their landlord asking if they would be willing to participate in the EDP. Their landlord agrees. 
  2. The tenant calls the EDP staff to schedule an appointment. 
  3. The tenant is screened for eligibility by the EDP staff. The tenant is admitted to the program. 
  4. The tenant and landlord participate in the EDP. This can occur at a courthouse, community organization, or civic center. A rental payment plan is created, and both parties agree to it. 
  5. The court is notified of the plan. This can happen in two different ways: 
    1. The tenant and landlord attend court. They present the EDP plan. The Judge agrees to the plan. 
    2. OR The tenant and landlord attend the EDP instead of court. The EDP staff notifies the court of the plan. 
  6. The tenant stays in their home. The tenant continues work with the EDP until all outstanding rent has been paid. 

Why: EDPs benefit tenants, landlords, courts, and homeless shelters. They provide short-term rental assistance for tenants and can additionally offer legal services, short-term case management, landlord/tenant resolution services, and financial literacy education to tenants. These services address the root cause of tenants’ inability to pay rent. EDPs help landlords ensure that they will receive their rent consistently and on time. They also eliminate the gap in income between evicting a tenant and securing a new renter. Additionally, EDPs lesson landlord’s emotional distress because they are able to find a solution to evictions. EDPs decrease the burden on courts by lowering the number of evictions and reducing recidivism. Lastly, EDPs provide a medley of services for tenants with the goal of preventing homelessness and lowering the number of unhoused individuals seeking support from homeless shelters. 

 

Solution 2: Collaborative Housing Courts 

What: A Collaborative Housing Court (CHC) emphasizes permanent housing security by promoting financial security and access to legal information.  CHC builds on what has already been created in several other criminal courts such as drug courts, mental health courts, etc. in creating a problem solving judiciary through which the state takes on homelessness and housing insecurity. CHC serves as a support system for those at-risk for homelessness through the design of personalized programs and a host of social services.

Who: A judge oversees CHC and the court would be staffed with housing specialists well-versed in the most common housing issues of the respective county. Tenants opt-in to the CHC or are referred by a non-CHC housing court judge during any point of a housing crisis. 

When: Tenants/at-risk individuals opt-in to the services at any point in which they might be experiencing housing insecurity or at-risk for housing experiencing housing insecurity.

Where: Services would be based in courthouses. While the Red Hook Community Justice Center in New York has implemented a similar program and San Francisco hosts a Community Justice Center with a similar structure, the CHC would be the first of its kind in applying criminal collaborative court approaches to civil matters. 

How: 

Step 1: Tenant experiences some housing crisis (i.e. interpersonal conflict, behind on rent, eviction, etc), and comes to CHC voluntarily or through referral to learn about the program.

Step 2: Agrees to the program and meets with a judge to develop a plan to identify the cause of the housing issue, resolve it, and prevent it from occurring again. 

Step 3: Tenant is assigned a housing specialist who can serve as a case manager.

Step 4: Regular check-ins with judge and housing specialist as agreed upon in Step 2.

Step 5: Court identifies tenant’s program completion by measuring housing security.

  1. Tenant has reached relative housing security and is certified with program completion
  2. Tenant hasn’t reached housing security but remains committed. Returns to Step 3 to develop a more effective plan. 
  3. Tenant hasn’t reached housing security and prefers to be discharged.

Why: The Bay Area is currently experiencing rapidly increasing homelessness which is affecting public health and city infrastructure, therefore the long-term stability of our most vulnerable populations is in the state’s best economic and social interests. The Community Housing Partnership has implemented this model of providing social services in apartment complexes mainly serving tenants at-risk for homelessness and overtime has managed to transition 90%+ of their tenants to permanent housing.

 

MargaretProblem-Solving Housing Courts