"In mediation you can do anything you want to. You don’t have to just get possession and get money. You can make any kind of other offer."
Bob Swan, Knox County Mediation Director
Mediation and the Anxiety of Rent
On a normal Tuesday at the Knox County Courthouse, 100 or more detainer cases, those involving eviction notices, are decided by the general sessions court judge.
According to the Eviction Lab at Princeton, nearly 900,000 evictions occurred in the U.S. in 2016. The same year in Knoxville, 1,183 people were evicted from their homes.
So like many court systems across the nation, Knox County offers mediation services. The landlord or property manager may sit with the tenant and two state-certified mediators to reach an agreement beneficial to both parties.
“A lot of the landlords like to mediate,” Bob Swan, judicial clerk and mediation director of the general sessions court, said. “We bring them in, and they sit down with the mediators on one side of the table and the tenants and the landlord on the other side and any witnesses they may bring.”
Knox County practices a dual mediation concept when detainer warrants, or eviction notices, are placed before a general sessions judge. The free mediation service attempts to facilitate a conversation between the landlord and tenant without legal intervention.
“We try to bring the parties together,” Swan said in an interview. “In mediation you can do anything you want to. You don’t have to just get possession and get money. You can make any kind of other offer.”
In 2016, there were 1,183 evictions in Knoxville alone, according to data gathered by the Eviction lab.
In the last two years, 207 cases have been mediated with 163 cases agreeing to settle their case, according to Swan. The other 44 cases that did not reach an agreement during mediation were returned to the judge for ruling.
“The success rate is any time you get somebody into mediation,” Swan said. “But in reality, whether you get an agreement or don’t get an agreement? It runs about 70-75 percent you do get an agreement.”
Knoxville’s Community Development Center (KCDC), the public housing authority for Knox County, offers mediation and grievances to tenants prior to issuing detainer warrants.
The process allows the tenant two opportunities to state their case through informal and formal internal hearings with KCDC grievance officers.
“We kind of have used this hearing process to connect people with resources that might help you to try to identify […] what’s wrong, how can we get you in compliance with your lease,” Ashely Ogle, KCDC admissions and grievance officer, said.
With the internal hearings, tenants are encouraged to identify the root issue of their inability to comply with the lease agreement. Grievance officers help to identify community resources that can help alleviate the specific issue.
“We like to try to figure out if we can correct the problem and get the person in compliance with their lease,” Ogle said in an interview. “And a lot of times we can do that in the hearing process.”
Big Oaks Apartments property manager Siane Canaan said she believes mediation is beneficial for both tenants and landlords.
“I think that once [the tenant] realize[s] that we’re willing to work with them if they would just do a few things then they get a better feeling—it’s not like I’m out to get them,” Canaan said. “I’m willing to sit down and discuss this.”
In two separate instances, tenants at Big Oaks have been served with detainer warrants for noise complaints and failure to maintain the apartment complex’s housekeeping policy. After receiving two warnings each, those tenants were taken to court where they elected to take mediation.
“Both tenants are still here,” Canaan said. “And that’s been over six years ago.”
But in cases of nonpayment of rent, Canaan said tenants usually do not appear in court.
“I think in the 19 years that I’ve been here, if it’s nonpayment, I think I’ve been lucky if maybe three people have ever showed up,” Canaan said. “I don’t know why but they don’t show up for that.”
In Swan’s experience, the lack of communication between landlord and tenant becomes apparent during mediation.
“A lot of times this is the first time the landlord and tenant have never even talked to each other about this—especially the people who have a lot of tenants,” Swan said.
Canaan said tenants are often anxious.
“I understand they think that if they have to come [to my office] it’s serious—that I’m going to throw them out,” Canaan said. “And it’s nothing like that, but they find that when they call and talk to me on the telephone.”
Canaan said tenants find out quickly that open communication with a property manager about their predicament can help alleviate their fears.
“We’ve just learned through the years that it’s easier and better to try to work with them than just jump the bat, throw them out, and replace them,” Canaan said. “Because everybody has circumstances.”
Tenants and landlords are encouraged to use mediation as a means to open communication.
“The whole purpose of the mediators is to bring the two parties together,” Swan said. “It really helps the parties because lots of times, they got rid of their hostilities. It’s the first time they’ve ever talked to each other in many cases.”