Eviction filings in Massachusetts have been climbing since a statewide moratorium expired in October. And while Governor Charlie Baker has allocated an extra $171 million to tenant and landlord relief programs, eviction cases are expected to climb even faster in the new year, after a federal moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control expires on December 31.
The double-edged COVID housing crisis threatens both tenants — a quarter of whom were unable to pay rent on time in December, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council — and small landlords, who often rely on that rent to pay their own mortgages. Both groups are key constituents for real estate brokers, which is one reason the Massachusetts Association of Realtors (MAR) has created a first-in-the-nation scholarship program that will fund mediation training for its members through the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration (MOPC).
The MOPC supports community mediation centers throughout the state that, with funding from Baker’s Eviction Diversion Initiative, are now offering free, pre-court mediation services between landlords and tenants for non-payment evictions. Soon, a group of Realtors will join their rosters of trained, volunteer mediators, aiming to help renters and landlords reach agreements that both can live with — whether it’s to stabilize a tenancy, or to end it in a mutually agreeable way.
“Mediation can be faster and less expensive than going to court,” said Rosalind Cresswell, program manager at the MOPC. “But it also helps by allowing for flexible solutions to be worked out, which people are more likely to adhere to because they have determined them for themselves.”
Renters who went through the voluntary and confidential mediation process with their landlords preserved their tenancies 96 percent of the time, according to MOPC data. And the mediation process helped landlords recover an average of roughly $4,300 in lost rent and court fees.
“When the moratorium was originally put in place, there wasn’t really anything to offset the burden that the landlords were bearing,” said Amy Wallick, a Realtor with Lamacchia Realty and chair of MAR’s Government Affairs Committee. “That’s really where we came up with this whole idea for a mediation program — that maybe this would be the way for us to help both sides through this unprecedented time.”
Through a combination of state and national grants, MAR has secured enough funding for 16 of its members to complete the roughly 35-hour mediation training and a supervised mentorship. After that, they’ll be qualified to help with what Cresswell says is likely to be a high volume of evictions in the coming months.
That adds up to a lot of responsibility and unpaid volunteer work for the selected agents. But Wallick said the association’s members have so far shown an eagerness to get involved.
“We have had an overwhelming response to this program,” Wallick said, noting that, as of Tuesday, 81 members from all over the state had submitted an application for the 16 available scholarships. “So we’re actually already trying to work on some expansion to seek additional funding and to potentially increase the capacity for mentoring for our volunteers.”
“People are excited to be able to give back at a time when their communities are in need,” said Jonathan Schreiber, legislative and regulatory counsel for MAR. “This program provides a really clear path to being able to play a role in helping people, and I think that means a lot to our members.”
Realtors typically practice some mediation strategies in their line of work already, said RE/MAX Destiny broker Melvin A. Vieira, Jr., vice-chair of the government affairs committee. And most have experience with tenant-landlord relationships as well, making them uniquely suited to help in this capacity, he said. “The mediator is there to make it a win-win, to listen to both parties and come to a mutual agreement,” Vieira said.
But ideally, Vieira adds, tenants and landlords can work together to find an agreeable solution without ever resorting to professional mediation. And that, he said, all starts with a conversation.
“Your landlord doesn’t bite,” Vieira said. “Your landlord has to pay their bills just like you do. They may be frustrated or a little upset, but pick up the phone, have a conversation. That’s what mediation is going to do anyway, so try to have that conversation beforehand, and hopefully, you can come to some understanding.”
Wallick said it’s easy for tenants and landlords to feel overwhelmed during a financial hardship, and that they don’t always realize that there are resources and services out there to help them. “They don’t really know who to turn to or where to go, and the reality is that there are programs available to help them through these situations,” she said. Renters and landlords can visit mass.gov/covidhousinghelp to see what resources and programs are available to them.
But should a rental dispute escalate to the mediation stage, Cresswell says the process can often have a long-lasting impact. “Mediation is particularly valuable where there is an ongoing relationship,” she said, “because it can build understanding and skills to handle future disputes.”