Portland’s City Council approved funding Wednesday for a pilot program to divert a small number of tenants and landlords from going to court over eviction filings. The council will pay for a mediator and, in some cases, provide rent assistance.

The council unanimously approved a $150,000 contract to Portland-based nonprofit Resolutions Northwest to provide free mediation services for landlords and tenants locked in disputes that might traditionally lead to eviction filings. The vote comes a few months before an anticipated flood of evictions this summer, when the state’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium expires.

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During its pilot phase, the landlord-tenant mediation program would provide somewhere between 70 and 100 mediations for Portlanders at risk of losing their housing, according to city documents. Resolutions Northwest estimates 70% of these mediations will be successful, according to Christina Dirks, the policy and program coordinator for the Portland’s housing bureau.

The program would also make $70,000 available for financial assistance as part of mediation. Most of these payments would likely be for back rent, but could be used for any payments agreed to by both parties during mediation, including missed utility payments or property damage.

During a council meeting Wednesday, Commissioner Dan Ryan, who oversees the city’s housing bureau, said the program was “urgently needed” by both renters and landlords.

But Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty sounded a note of caution about the impact the small pilot could have, calling a hundred mediations “a drop in the bucket” compared to the thousands of people who would soon be headed to court when the moratorium expired.

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“I just don’t want to overpromise a pilot project like this knowing the magnitude of the need out there, and knowing how unrealistic $70,000 is going to be when people haven’t paid rent for over a year,” she said.

Similar programs have been adopted across the country. Philadelphia recently adopted a mandatory program that requires landlords engage in mediation with tenants before filing for evictions in most cases. Beaverton and San Jose, California, have both adopted programs that offer voluntary mediation.

Mike Nuss, who serves on the city’s rental services commission and owns property management company RareBird Portland, believes most of the disputes he has with tenants are due to a communication breakdown. In conflicts like these, he said, it may make more sense to involve a professional who has been trained to solve disputes rather than having tenants and landlords try to work it out amongst themselves — or bringing the disagreement to a judge.

“Negotiating is a learned skill set that not many people have, and then when you throw on the fact that you’re negotiating over either the house you live in or the property you own, which is probably your most valuable asset, it gets even more emotional,” he said. “That’s the beauty of a negotiation program: Now you have a skilled negotiator.”

Researchers have found mediation can be a powerful way to reduce evictions, as both landlords and tenants have a vested interest in avoiding an expensive legal battle. A paper last year on landlord-tenant mediation by the Urban Institute found that, while there were few studies to date on how many evictions these types of programs avert, the practice presented a “a promising alternative” to the courtroom.

“Mediation can help de-escalate landlord-tenant disputes by removing them from the intensity of the courtroom,” the paper stated. “And if mediation leads to a compromise, it can be cheaper than eviction for both landlords and tenants and leave both parties better off.”

The city has not yet established a firm start date for the program. In an interview, Dirks said there will likely be a public engagement process to alert interest landlords or tenants to the new service. The city’s rental service office can also direct parties to the outside mediator.

The program is expected to address a wide array of disputes to start, such as nonpayment of rent or lease violations.

“I think there’s value in knowing what folks want to mediate and what they’re willing to mediate,” Dirks said. “We’re going to keep it broad.”

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