Diane Buchanan wasn’t sure what to think when she got an automated text message and email asking her to participate in mediation with her landlord. On her end, she was struggling to pay rent because of the pandemic. On her landlord’s end, the home’s refrigerator needed repairs.

She decided to take a chance on Philadelphia’s new Eviction Diversion Program. A mediator helped work out what Buchanan called a “fair” agreement: She would make her best effort to pay the full rent, and the landlord would get her a working refrigerator. She said she felt heard during the conference call, unlike in court, where “the scale, you know, always seems to lean more towards the owner than the tenant.”

“People don’t know that there might be something that they can work out. I didn’t,” Buchanan, 61, said during a City Council hearing last week. The program “gives the landlords their money, and it allows the tenant to show good faith.”

The city’s Eviction Diversion Program, which launched in September as a result of a City Council bill, requires landlords to go to mediation with tenants in most cases before filing for evictions in court. The goal is to reach an agreement that benefits both the tenants, who are suffering financially because of the pandemic and facing the loss of their homes, and the landlords, who are losing income and potentially facing foreclosure.

The program will likely face its toughest test once evictions for nonpayment of rent resume. City and federal bans on most evictions expire at the end of the month. So does the requirement that landlords use the diversion program.

Housing advocates are seeking to extend the program, developed in collaboration with landlords, while city officials determine its future, possibly in the court system. City Council is expected to vote Thursday on an extension through March 31.

At last week’s hearing, Councilmember Helen Gym, who introduced the extension bill, said the initiative “stands as one of the city’s signature programs” to help residents struggling during the pandemic.

Over the last two months, 237 mediations occurred, according to the city. Of those, 182 reached agreements, avoiding eviction filings. In 42 cases, participants agreed to keep negotiating. Thirteen didn’t reach agreements. Another roughly 220 mediations have been scheduled.

“The way I see it is it’s a win-win-win,” said Sue Wasserkrug, program administrator at Good Shepherd Mediation Program, which helps run the diversion program. “It’s a win for the landlord, it’s a win for the tenant, it’s a win for the entire community.”

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Cities across the country have created pre-court mediation programs for landlords and tenants. A similar mediation initiative launched in Pittsburgh this summer.

Philadelphia’s Eviction Diversion Program is modeled after a successful city program to prevent home foreclosures. Retired Philadelphia Judge Annette M. Rizzo helped start the nationally and internationally recognized Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program, created during the foreclosure epidemic in 2008 to intervene and keep residents in their homes.

“I feel this same surge of purposeful need to act that’s now being put into the eviction universe,” said Rizzo, a mediator in the eviction program who helped recruit other judges to it. Tenant advocates and city officials anticipate a flood of evictions next year if the city doesn’t work to prevent it.

Entering mediation before a court filing saves landlords from fees and tenants from snowballing consequences. Even when tenants win their eviction cases in court, or landlords withdraw, or both parties reach an agreement, eviction filings stain tenants’ records and make finding new housing more difficult, according to a Nov. 30 report by Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. Landlords have filed to evict more than 112,000 Philadelphians since 2015, according to the nonprofit. A 2020 Pennsylvania House bill that would have automatically sealed many eviction records did not advance and would have to be reintroduced next year.

“Anything we can do to keep people out of court is just so important,” said housing counselor Janaya Lewinski with the Tenant Union Representative Network.

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The Eviction Diversion Program takes the landlord-tenant relationship and “encases it in humanity,” Rizzo said. Many tenants in the program are trying to do what they can to keep their homes, but they’ve lost jobs “and they’re scared,” she said.

At the same time, she said, the program also is vital to prevent foreclosures for property owners. Small landlords own almost half of Philadelphia’s licensed rental units, and the city relies on them to provide affordable housing. Mediators help landlords and tenants make realistic deals.

Moshe Attas, a landlord and property manager in North Philadelphia, supports the Eviction Diversion Program and said mediation lacks the resentment common when cases go to court.

“This is a way to create a bridge between the tenant and the landlord to walk safely on it and communicate with each other,” he said at last week’s City Council hearing.

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But he said someone needs to make sure both sides follow through. Of the four mediation sessions he’s participated in, one tenant didn’t show up and another was late complying with the agreement. Either the tenant or the landlord did not show for nearly 100 scheduled mediations.

During the hearing, Brianna Westbrooks, government affairs manager for the Pennsylvania Apartment Association and a member of the diversion program’s planning committee, said landlords are frustrated by tenants not showing up for mediation. And she said the association believes mediation would work better after landlords file for evictions or should be voluntary prefiling.

But she said rental assistance is most important to ensure tenants can hold up their end of payment agreements and, in a statement, called it “the only policy solution that will prevent both renters and property owners from enduring significant financial hardship.”

Housing counselors help landlords and tenants navigate available resources, laws, and protections. They talk with tenants before mediation, review their objectives and ability to pay rent, help them apply for rental assistance and grants, and help them find new housing if they need it.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania tenants’ rights guide

Most mediation cases in Philadelphia have been about nonpayment of rent, but others have involved landlords wanting to sell their properties, disputes over home repairs, and violations of leases. Mediators help landlords and tenants agree to repayment plans, schedule repairs, and resolve disputes.

Part of the mediation process involves clearing up misunderstandings between landlords and tenants. Rizzo recalled one case in which a tenant of a duplex was current on her rent but behind in utility payments. It turned out that the woman was being billed for the entire house, a problem the landlord’s attorney started working to fix while on the mediation call, Rizzo said.

Regional Housing Legal Services in Pittsburgh this week recommended that eviction diversion initiatives provide broad support and coordinated resources to tenants, involve landlords in their design, lower barriers to entry, accept as many types of tenants as possible, and prioritize making sure tenants and landlords know they exist. Educating Philadelphia tenants about mediation has been one struggle for the program so far.

» READ MORE: Advocates, officials try to prevent Philly’s coming wave of coronavirus evictions

Abraham Reyes Pardo, director of housing for the Urban League of Philadelphia and a housing counselor in the diversion program, said during last week’s Council hearing that “this type of program was due before the pandemic, to be honest with you.”

Prefiling mediation was one of the recommendations in a 2018 report from the city’s task force on eviction prevention. A pilot program ran for a couple of months before the pandemic, which spurred the expansion of the initiative.