San Jose tenants suffering financial setbacks due to coronavirus have been protected by city, county and state eviction moratoriums since March. But with those temporary protections set to expire at the end of August, the city rolled out a mediation program this month to help landlords and tenants resolve rental disputes on their own.
The city’s housing department has taken hundreds of calls from tenants and landlords seeking a neutral third party to facilitate resolutions to their disagreements, the department’s deputy director told San José Spotlight. The city screens the calls and refers those that qualify to the Santa Clara County Office of Mediation and Ombuds Services.
San Jose has a mediation program to resolve disputes related to the city’s rent-controlled units, but this is the first program that covers all rental units covered by the city’s eviction moratorium — including apartments, single family houses, duplexes, accessory dwelling units and mobile homes.
To be eligible for mediation services through the program tenants must live in a unit covered by San Jose’s eviction moratorium, have “substantial loss of income” including job loss, furlough, reduced hours or less work due to COVID-19. Tenants must also notify landlords of their reduced income to qualify for the mediation program.
“Tenants are very stressed because they are under financial strain and they are worried about the future,” San Jose Housing Department Deputy Director Rachel VanderVeen said. “The anxiety about not being able to pay rent is very high.”
Eventually, every tenant who is accumulating rent arrears will have to pay the balance owed. When San Jose’s eviction moratorium ends, tenants will have until Feb. 28, 2021 to repay half of their back rent and until Aug. 31, 2021 to be paid in full. That’s if the city doesn’t extend the program, which it has done twice already, first in April then again in June.
When the City Council voted to extend its eviction moratorium last month, Silicon Valley Law Foundation attorney Michael Trujillo said it is “protecting the most vulnerable members of our community.” Trujillo told the council his organization had received more than 1,400 calls from people seeking legal advice about being evicted since the pandemic began.
But the purpose of the mediation program is to get landlords and tenants to negotiate options for repayment tailor-made for those individuals — either within or beyond the broad parameters set out by the city — without resorting to eviction.
“What we are trying to do is to create a platform where tenants and landlords can find solutions together,” VanderVeen said. “We believe there are thousands of households throughout San Jose who are struggling to pay their rent because of COVID-19 and we thought this was something that would help those families bridge the gap.”
Elizabeth Williams, a program manager with the county’s Office of Mediation and Ombuds Services, said a mediator’s job is to keep the negotiations productive, steer the discussion away from sore subjects, avoid communication breakdowns and facilitate trust and compromise. Williams said the county’s moderators also try to keep the process as “streamlined and stress-free as possible” while remaining neutral.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Williams said. “Both sides are settling their disputes in a custom-made way. Rather than assuming the worst, people have a foundation for communication, trust building and achieving productive outcomes.”
Still, in any mediation it is a challenge to get both parties to see the dispute from the other’s perspective, Williams said.
“Landlords see the world through their lens — they have property taxes and mortgages that have to be paid,” Williams told San José Spotlight. “And tenants see the world through their lens — they have bills and families to support on a diminished income.”
“Both sides are hurting,” she said.
To request mediation through the program, tenants and landlords may contact the city’s department of housing at 408-975-4480.