Preserve Strong Communities with Housing Mediation

by Center for Conflict Resolution
Preserve Strong Communities with Housing Mediation

Jessica moved into her apartment last December with her husband and two kids. One of the reasons she chose the apartment was because she found Javier, from the property management team, to be very friendly. Jessica’s neighbor called the police about the noise from her apartment on three occasions in the first few months.

After the third noise complaint, Jessica was served with a ten-day notice saying that she was in violation of the health and safety standards of her lease and would have to find a new place to live. Lucy was the member of the property management team to serve Jessica. Jessica told Lucy that she was six months pregnant and that she was not in a position to move. The two women were not able to resolve things and eventually Lucy’s company filed an eviction case against Jessica. When the case was in court the judge referred them to mediation.

From the start of the mediation, it was clear that Jessica and Lucy were very angry with one another. While Jessica had experienced a good relationship with Javier, she and Lucy had only had difficult conversations related to the noise complaints and the pending eviction. Jessica felt that Lucy had not listened to her concerns that the complaining neighbors were just trying to get her evicted. Jessica was upset that Lucy had appeared in court, since Javier had seemed much more concerned about her well-being.

During the mediation, the mediator asked them about their previous communications and learned that Jessica and Lucy had never had a positive interaction. The mediator asked them both to discuss ways their communications might have been more productive. Jessica said that she wanted Lucy to be more empathetic when providing the notice and felt that Lucy had not heard her side of the story. Lucy said she did not know what else to say, since she was simply enforcing a standard policy about noise complaints.

This led to a discussion about the responsibilities of the property manager – to enforce rules and to care for the tenants. The mediator asked Lucy why she became a property manager and she said she had done so to get a job to provide for her family. Jessica shared that she had also just made a big career shift for the same reason. This common ground softened both parties a bit and they were able to keep speaking. Eventually, both Jessica and Lucy apologized to the other for their behavior in their previous interactions. Jessica wanted to be a good tenant and neighbor and Lucy wanted to create an environment where tenants would feel cared for.

The mediator inquired about a plan moving forward and Lucy and Jessica agreed it would be best for Jessica to move somewhere where she felt more welcomed by her neighbors. Lucy apologized about her experience in the community and said she hoped Jessica would find somewhere more welcoming. Jessica agreed that she would try to keep the noise down until she moved, but Lucy and Jessica both agreed that they would have a better relationship from this point on. The parties left the mediation prepared to clearly communicate moving forward.

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The participants in this mediation were Ann and Mathias. Ann had acted as a live-in caretaker for Mathias’s mother, Mama Claire, in exchange for reduced rent in Mama Claire’s home from early 2017 until her death in January 2020. After Mama Claire’s death, Mathias expected Ann to move out of the house, but she did not and the two ended up in a series of arguments that resulted in Mathias contacting CCR to schedule a mediation. Due to the eviction moratorium, he was unable to file a case in court.

During the mediation, the mediator learned that Ann and Mathias first met Mother’s Day of 2017 and initially, they liked one another. They both wanted the best for Mama Claire and thought that Ann living with her in exchange for rent was a great solution. However, Mathias later came to believe that Ann was a poor caretaker and would leave for weeks at a time. In response to the charges of poor caretaking, Ann stated that she did not want to give Mama Claire her prescription injections and left that to the home health care nurse that visited the house, but that otherwise she cared for all of Mama Claire’s needs. She said that Mama Claire had severe memory problems and would forget that she had seen Ann and would ask her where she had been for the last few weeks when she had seen Ann the day before. She felt that her contributions as a caretaker were undervalued. She was hurt by Mathias’ accusations and felt that Mathias was lying about his conversations with Mama Claire regarding her wishes for the house after her death. A true accounting of the events was important to both parties, even though it was impossible to determine what had really occurred.

The mediator worked with the parties to help reframe their conversation. Without Mama Claire available to confirm or deny their stories, there was no way to determine if anyone was misrepresenting what happened. The mediator helped the parties shift to a conversation of what was important to both of them and asked questions to help them both determine if there were any options available to them in mediation that would resolve the disagreement.

Ann initially stated that she had been paying rent but then later in the mediation admitted she had not paid rent for the last year. She said she had consulted a legal aid attorney who told her that because the deed was not in Mathias’s name and there was no written lease agreement, she was not obligated to pay him any rent. Ann said she tried to move out in early 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, but with the shelter-in-place order she had nowhere else to go.

Mathias stated that he cared deeply for his mother. Despite living seventy miles away, he visited her regularly. While he had concerns near the end of his mother’s life, he did agree that Ann had been a good caretaker for most of the time she lived in the home.

Mathias was willing to agree that Ann would move out when the eviction moratorium was lifted. Ann considered this calmly and thoughtfully but then stated that she was reluctant to move out because she said she was struggling to find alternate housing during the pandemic. The mediator helped the parties talk about the difference between the moratorium ending and the pandemic ending. The parties soon realized that those were difficult ideas to define because there were so many unknown factors. They agreed that Ann would stay in the house for at least two more months, but that she would begin to pay rent to Mathias. The mediator helped them draft an agreement and let them know that they were welcome to return for a follow up mediation session at any time.

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Jerome bought a two-flat a few years ago and moved in to the upstairs unit and rented the first floor apartment to Carl. Carl worked the night shift at a machining plant, so he was rarely awake during the day. Since the men kept very different hours, they rarely interacted and this created a fair amount of conflict. Jerome and Carl ended up in Eviction Court where the judge sent them to mediation.

To begin, the mediator asked each man to explain what had happened from his perspective. Jerome, as the initiator of the case, began by explaining how there had been numerous small damages to the property in Carl’s unit in addition to personal items of Carl’s that were left around the property, creating an eye-sore. Carl countered by describing how, whenever he would approach Jerome about fixing something, Jerome would not follow through in a timely fashion, if at all.

Both men agreed that this situation had been going on far too long and needed to come to an end. Jerome was seeking a certain move-out date from Carl, but Carl was unwilling to provide that, suggesting that during the pandemic and with his work schedule, it was going to be very difficult to find a new place to live.

The mediator succinctly summarized the position of each man, then pivoted from that to inquire about the underlying interests that were driving their behaviors. Jerome cared a great deal about his new property and wanted to maintain its appearance and quality. He had tried to contact Carl many times about keeping things neat and tidy, but often Carl was unavailable or unresponsive. At other times, Carl would say that he was going to fix or clean something up, but then wouldn’t do it.

For his part, Carl indicated that since he was usually trying to sleep during the day, the noise that came from Jerome’s unit often kept him up and made him too tired to clean or do other small projects around the unit during his free time. When something would break, he would sometimes message Jerome about it, but because their schedules didn’t align, they often missed opportunities to discuss solutions and would go weeks or months with nothing being done.

The mediator highlighted that a shared value they were both expressing was timely communication and follow through on what was promised. Both men agreed. The mediator also asked about how their relationship had been with regard to payment of rent. Jerome was quick to point out that Carl was great at paying rent on time and that he really appreciated that. He indicated that one concern he had was that if Carl moved out, he might not find someone as prompt in that regard or someone who was as financially secure during the pandemic.

Consequently, the mediator inquired if they could sort out their communication and follow through issues, did they believe they could fix things well enough to keep the relationship going? Both men thought they could. Through brainstorming ideas and some reality testing by the mediator, they were able to come up with a solution whereby they would set up a weekly phone call to discuss any issues that needed attention. If there were any, both men agreed to make a plan about how to start those projects that weekend and clarify when the project would be completed. Jerome also agreed to purchase some runner carpets for his hallways, in order to dampen the noise from foot traffic and help Carl get better sleep.

With both men understanding better what was important to the other, they were satisfied that they could continue to remain landlord and tenant for the foreseeable future and were able to dismiss the pending eviction.

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Lisa rented an apartment from Arthur and Annie for over 3 years. Everything went well between them until about 6 months ago. Lisa was late with her rent on two occasions and then stopped paying altogether. Arthur and Annie filed an eviction against Lisa and when the three of them appeared in court the judge referred them to mediation with CCR.

As soon as she had a chance to speak, Annie began angrily demanding that Lisa pay the $2,300 she owed and get out. Before the mediator even had a chance to say anything, Arthur jumped in telling Annie to calm down and be quiet. This did not have the desired effect. Instead, Annie got even more upset and started yelling at Arthur! The mediator intervened quickly and asked everyone to pause and re-set. She then began again by turning to Annie and acknowledging that this was a really upsetting situation for her and asked her to explain in more detail why she was feeling so angry.

Annie felt Lisa had been disrespectful by paying rent late, and then by eventually not paying at all and avoiding their calls. Lisa argued it was Annie who had been disrespectful by confronting her about past due rent in front of her children, and explained she had just been reacting to Annie’s insults.

As the mediator explored this incident more, it became clear that both women had been going through a difficult time. Annie and Arthur’s adult daughter lived in the apartment prior to Lisa, and there had been a falling out between them. This resulted in the daughter damaging the apartment and being arrested for drunken and disorderly conduct. The event was traumatic for Annie and she had not recovered from it. Lisa had recently lost her job and been sued for custody of her two children by her ex, who claimed she was an unfit mother. She had been under a lot of pressure when Annie confronted her about the rent.

The mediator highlighted that when the two women had their confrontation, they had both been angry about other things. This impacted their ability to have a productive conversation at the time. The mediator asked if they had it to do over, would they change anything? Lisa acknowledged she could have notified Annie and Arthur about the situation and asked to make a plan to pay her rent when she was able. Annie agreed that more communication would have helped and that she could have waited until she was able to speak with Lisa privately to discuss the rent.

Arthur, who had quiet for most of the mediation, interjected that Lisa had always been a really good tenant, and it had been disappointing and scary when she had gone silent. When the mediator asked him to say more about why it was “scary,” he talked about how their daughter had been staying rent free, even though they needed the money, because they were trying to help her get on her feet and deal with her substance abuse issues. They had come to care about Lisa as well, and seeing another young woman possibly going down a concerning path made them worry that they were in for another bad experience both emotionally and financially.

Lisa told them that she had a new job, but that it didn’t pay as much as her old one, and she could no longer afford to stay in the apartment. If she could find a cheaper place to live, she would make some payments to catch up with the back rent. Annie said that she appreciated that honesty and believed that Lisa would pay what she promised.

Arthur and Annie agreed to give Lisa six weeks to find a new place and to dismiss the case as long as she was able to make some payments under a payment plan. Lisa agreed, since it would avoid an eviction on her record which could be problematic for her custody case with her ex and would impact her ability to find new housing.

Everyone expressed to the mediator that this resolution made them feel much better about the future and allowed them to resolve the issue completely. They thanked the mediator and headed back to dismiss their case.

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Reginald and his wife Loretta were landlords of a 3-flat building in Hyde Park. Their tenant, Jessica, and her two daughters had been residing in a unit on the top floor of the building. Reginald and Loretta lived on the first floor.

For a little over two years, there were no problems with Jessica paying her rent on time and the landlords were happy to have a long-term tenant.

At some point, Jessica started noticing rodents in her unit and notified Reginald of the situation. After a few weeks passed with no action taken, Jessica took matters into her own hands. She paid for an exterminator to come to the building to address the rodent issue. When Reginald found out about this gesture, he offered to pay Jessica back. Jessica refused as she considered the matter over. Reginald was grateful that his tenant cared about the building so much so that she would do something so generous.

A few weeks later, Jessica’s father asked her to provide a temporary home for his dog. Jessica asked Loretta if it would be acceptable to her and Reginald to have a dog for a short period of time. Loretta mentioned that it wasn't allowed by the terms of the lease, but as long as it was for a short time, it would be ok.  

Jessica then purchased a puppy for her children without telling Reginald and Loretta, which meant there were now two dogs living in the unit. The puppy was not trained and left piles of feces in the hall and on the back porch. When the landlords started receiving complaints from the other residents, they addressed the dog issue with Jessica. She agreed to have the carpets professionally cleaned and again paid for the carpet cleaning service.

Loretta continued to confront Jessica about the dogs. The relationship between them began to erode. Jessica noticed a leak in the kitchen and asked Reginald to have it repaired. When it was not repaired, Jessica stopped paying rent. Three months passed with no rent, so the landlords took Jessica to court, asking for an eviction and back rent. They cited that she had dogs that were not permissible under the terms of the lease. Jessica mentioned that she wasn't paying rent because of the rodents and the repairs not being completed violating the terms of the lease.

The case was referred to mediation with Center for Conflict Resolution. To learn a little about the relationship between the parties, the mediator asked Jessica how she decided to live in the unit. Jessica said she was referred to Reginald and Loretta through a mutual friend they knew from church. Loretta began insulting Jessica, saying "She needs to pray a lot harder because she has the devil in her!" Jessica said she felt disrespected, and that this was one of the reasons why she has not been paying rent.

Loretta kept trying to show the mediator evidence that she brought to court to show the judge. The mediator said, "I can tell you are passionate about showing me this evidence, why do you feel so strongly that you need to show this to me?" Loretta replied, "Because I want you to see what it has been like for us to wake up and come get our paper in the morning and be greeted by dog feces in the hallway." At that point, the mediator asked her to explain what that was like for her. She said the smell was terrible and that she was no longer comfortable living in her building anymore. The mediator said, "so you need to be comfortable living in your building." The mediator asked Reginald and Loretta how they felt when Jessica paid for the exterminator. Reginald said, "I think she is a good mom, works hard, and has taken pride in our building, and I am appreciative of that." The mediator asked Jessica how she felt hearing those words. She replied, "Although Reginald didn't come to fix things as quickly as he said, he always respected me." The mediator said, "so you need to be respected."

With the mediator's help, they were able to understand more clearly each of their needs and interests. The mediator was then able to facilitate a conversation that ended with the tenant agreeing to move out by the end of the month. This amount of time would allow the landlord to do the necessary repairs to have the apartment rented again. The landlord agreed only to collect one month of the three months' rent owed as long as she moved out at the end of the month.

They ended up shaking hands at the end of the meeting, able to put things in the past and leave without having to return to court.

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Center for Conflict Resolution

Location: Chicago, IL - USA
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Cassandra Lively
Chicago, IL United States
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