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In Dauphin County, an under-used program could help landlords and tenants avoid eviction

A mediation program that helps landlords and tenants work through eviction notices—so both sides benefit—has been launched in Dauphin County, with funding coming from pro-bono work by the county bar association, as well as grants and federal pandemic-relief measures.

As of early April, about 15 tenants had agreed to repayment terms after being steered toward financial assistance programs by mediators, said Sandy Ballard, an attorney and the public services coordinator for the Dauphin County Bar Association. The goal is to get tenants and landlords talking as soon as possible, so tenants can stay in their homes while landlords get paid.

One hurdle has been getting the word out about the fledgling program, which looked to similar efforts in Philadelphia and elsewhere for guidance but needed to be built from scratch, said Ballard and Matthew Rich, a staff attorney at MidPenn Legal Services that represents tenants in eviction cases. Both landlords and tenants must participate, and they need to understand how they can both benefit.

“That is one of the difficulties,” Rich said. “We need both parties to come to the table.”

Last year, Ballard contacted Rich to see what could be done to help families struggling with rent payments during the pandemic. Eviction bans—on the national level and now in the city of Harrisburg—have helped keep people in their homes while their leases were in place. However, the bans didn’t stop the eviction process.

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Cases for nonpayment of rent can go all the way through the process and must only stop at the point of the actual eviction. But as the more than year-long pandemic continued, lease terms began to expire. And the eviction bans for nonpayment only apply to tenants with current leases. In some instances, landlords normally might be willing to extend leases on a month-to-month basis but have been unwilling to do so if they had not been paid for months, Rich said.

Ballard and Rich pulled together an advisory board that included tenant advocacy groups and landlord advocates so that all voices could be heard. Organizers recognized that landlords were being seriously hurt by the pandemic, as well, because they still needed to make payments for mortgages, taxes, insurances, utilities and upkeep, Ballard and Rich said.

Rita Dallago, executive director of the Pennsylvania Residential Owners Association, recently said that some landlords have had to sell properties because they can no longer carry the expenses while not collecting rent. She estimated about a third of the rental properties in the region were occupied by tenants not current with payments.

The mediation program needs to be proactive because there are tight windows in the eviction process once the case enters the courts. In fact, pro bono attorneys might be willing to help tenants but often can’t adjust their schedules on short notice, Ballard said. Experience also has shown that a lot of tenants who are served an eviction notice simply don’t show up for the hearing. While the landlord might technically win such a case, there often is little chance that they will get the back rent a judge might award, Ballard and Rich said.

“Landlords have been forced to carry the water for the system during this pandemic,” Rich said, adding that, as a tenant’s advocate, it was important for him to understand the issues facing landlords, too. “We understand that, and there has been very little in the way of relief for them.”

Rich, Ballard and others pointed out that the initial federal rental assistance programs set up early in the pandemic were not administered well and the intended relief did not reach landlords or tenants.

“It was flawed. In actuality, it was horrendous,” Rich said. “There were so many barriers that kept landlords from participating that it was shameful, frankly.”

Ryan M. Colquhoun, who owns Harrisburg Property Management, said the initial relief program was overly complicated.

“A lot of people who needed help didn’t get help,” said Colquhoun, who is a member of the advisory board set up by Ballard and Rich. “I thought the application process was way too cumbersome for when it was rolled out.”

Last spring and summer, after government agencies moved to remote work, tenants were being asked to provide numerous documents that they often didn’t have at their fingertips, such as social security statements or income verifications. If tenants couldn’t go to an office to get documents and didn’t have access to email, there was no way to contact those who could help them, he said. The usual places they might go for help with technology issues also were closed.

With the latest stimulus programs earmarked for rental assistance, the process should run a lot smoother, Colquhoun, Ballard and Rich said. And with the new mediation process in place, tenants should get direct advice on how to apply for financial assistance, they added. Mediators will offer budgeting tips and show tenants how to apply for the most recent round of federal stimulus.

That funding—Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP)—could include payments of up to 12 months, as opposed to the six months allowed last year under the initial stimulus program, Rich said. And the payments can include back rent and three months of forward rent. Hypothetically, tenants who stopped paying rent in January could get assistance for the four months due by April and then three months in advance. At that point, they would need to re-qualify but could get up to five more months of assistance, Rich said. He estimates that about 900 to 1,000 applications had been filed under ERAP by early April.

While that assistance might not make some landlords whole on their losses, it might encourage landlords to agree to month-to-month leases until vaccines are fully distributed and all businesses that plan to reopen do so, the stakeholders said. However, the program will not work unless both the landlord and the tenant agree to mediation, they stressed.

Although the goal is to catch people before an eviction notice is filed, that isn’t always possible. As a trial run, the organizers first involved Magisterial District judges Barbara Pianka in Harrisburg and David Judy in Royalton to inform them of the mediation program and to steer tenants toward it. While the eviction process won’t stop during mediation, the additional conversations could result in an agreement that both sides sign.

“This is something as a management company that we always promote: We have to have conversations,” Colquhoun said. “The last thing we want to do is go to court. But we go to court when everything else breaks down.”

He said he thinks a lot of landlords would be willing to give mediation a try, especially knowing that about 95% of tenants facing an eviction don’t show up for the hearing if they think they can’t pay. “I think the key is getting tenants to participate and understand there is an alternative to just letting the court process ride and get evicted.”

The financial and budget counseling during the mediation also helps ensure that tenants aren’t making promises they can’t keep, such as agreeing to pay more for back rent than what they can afford, Ballard said.

The mediation process sets up a system where the direct payments go directly to the landlords—not to the tenants. However, because ERAP is so new, payments aren’t expected until about four to six weeks after the paperwork is filed, Rich and Ballard said.

Colquhoun said his company has worked out several mediation agreements but has yet to receive payment. Assuming the payment process goes smoothly, he thinks more tenants and landlords will see the benefits and sign on. Even during normal times, he added, most evictions that go to court are not complicated and often involve a tenant’s inability to pay rent, so a system that steers tenants to financial assistance can only help.

“They are not, generally, highly technical legal issues or even highly disputed issues,” Colquhoun said. “So, mediation is more of a platform to try to work out a means of meeting the financial obligation.”

Because it is a different format than a court hearing, that helps put people on both sides at ease, Ballard, Rich and Colquhoun said.

“Hopefully, you find a resolution by finding resources,” Colquhoun said. “Almost every one of these cases can be resolved, if there are resources available and people actually take the steps forward to get them.”

End of Eviction Bans

When the national eviction moratorium ends in June, Ballard said, she expects there will be a “tsunami” of evictions, so anything that can be done to mitigate that problem will help.

“Like a tsunami, you know ahead of time it is coming,” Ballard said.

Colquhoun suggested that any increase in people losing their homes will be because the final leg of the system —the actual eviction—has been shut down for more than a year.

“Any time you don’t do something that naturally happens every day for what soon will be 15 months, there will be backlogs,” he said. “If you don’t cut your grass for a year, it gets very long. Every year, absent a pandemic, there are foreclosures and there are evictions, so if we don’t have them at a natural pace, well, yes, there will be a backlog.”

HPM, which manages properties in Harrisburg and then west to Carlisle and east to Palmyra, had some tenants struggle early on but resolved those issues by May or June, Colquhoun said.

“At least in what we manage, which is more than 2,000 units in this area, ‘widespread’ would be far from a term I would use,” he said. “It was an isolated group of non-paying tenants. It was a narrow issue, in my opinion, by June of 2020. As we have continued to this point, it has not gotten worse.”

As far as the future of the mediation program, Ballard and Rich think that it could be around long after the pandemic ends. The key will be getting the funding after federal stimulus money runs out. However, they said work continues with the various housing advocacy groups and government agencies to ensure continued funding.

“So long as you have two parties willing to give it a shot, it is never too late,” Rich said, adding that tenants should do everything they can to keep an eviction notice off their records. “The hope, from day 1, was that we wanted to help people get through the crisis. But beyond the crisis, everyone would like to avoid court.”

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