Manage Your Court’s Caseloads With the NCSC’s Eviction Diversion Tool

Eviction notice on a doorWith the phasing out of Illinois’ eviction moratorium set to begin on August 1, courts across the state are preparing for what is likely to be a flood of eviction filings.

To help stem the flood, the Illinois Supreme Court instituted a one-month triage period for residential eviction filings that will run from August 1 – September 1. During this period, the judiciary will focus on referring newly filed eviction cases to state programs that provide financial assistance, including up to 15 months of rental assistance or $25,000 to support tenants.

The Supreme Court has also created resources to make it easier for local circuits to institute eviction early resolution programs and, through the Commission on Access to Justice, has published statewide agreed orders in eviction cases to help facilitate swift settlements that keep renters in their homes.

Nationally, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) hopes to mitigate a wave of evictions across the country through its new Eviction Diversion Diagnostic Tool. We spoke with Zach Zarnow, a Principal Court Management Consultant at the NCSC, about the tool, who should use it, and how the NCSC can support your eviction diversion efforts.

What is the Eviction Diversion Diagnostic Tool?

Danielle Hirsch [Principal Court Management Consultant at the NCSC] and I developed the Eviction Diversion Diagnostic Tool after we realized that many courts were curious about establishing an eviction diversion program but didn’t know how to start.

The tool asks users a series of questions about their jurisdiction, their preferences around certain aspects of a program, and details about relevant partners, among other things. The user then gets a customized document with advice, best practices, and resources, as well as examples of programs in other jurisdictions that match their results.

After completing the tool, the user also gets prompted to sign up for a free consultation with us to discuss their results.

Who should use the tool?

We think anyone interested in eviction diversion should use the tool. Courts will find it helpful in thinking through the nuances of a program that will best fit their jurisdiction. Advocates and other legal system partners will find it useful in helping them understand what might be possible and as a jumping-off point to have a productive discussion with their court about establishing a program.

The final document is a great framework that touches on all the major decision points, as well as putting in one place all the relevant considerations and guidance, including funding options and a potential bench card.

What should courts consider when setting up an eviction diversion program?

The best programs are collaborative and feature partnerships with legal aid, housing counselors, financial counselors, mediation, and the agency that disburses rental assistance funds.

The court will need to consider how involved it wants to be – does it want to schedule status hearings to discuss options with the parties? Will it issue a case management order? Does it prefer to simply make information about rental assistance available via a modified summons or supplemental information sheet? Will the program be pre- or post-filing? Will the eviction filing records be sealed or restricted? How long does it take from the time someone applies for rental assistance to receipt of funds? Can the court make space for that process to work?

There is a lot to think about.

Do eviction diversion programs work?

Eviction diversion programs are win-win-win. They help courts manage their caseload, they help tenants avoid eviction, and they help landlords resolve their issues and access rental assistance funds.

For example, the statewide program in Texas (a state with a decentralized court system) has disbursed millions of dollars in rental assistance funds to landlords and tenants by making space for rental assistance funds to flow, which means that cases are dismissed and sealed without an eviction.

This program has diverted thousands of cases out of the Texas courts, gotten much-needed funds to landlords, and kept tenants from losing housing or having a hard time finding housing in the future due to an eviction record. Truly a win-win-win.

How can courts with limited time and resources implement diversion programs?

I may be biased here but start by using the tool. We really tried to take all the questions we would ask when helping a jurisdiction set up a program and distill them into an easy-to-use Q&A format.

We’re also here to help talk through options and encourage courts to reach out. There are some actions a court can take right now that require minimal effort but can make a large impact.

First, the court should make sure that everyone knows that rental assistance funds are available. In fact, we made a free video that we will happily customize with a court’s name and/or logo and rental assistance URL. You can see the video here, and if you would like a version for your court’s website, just shoot me an email.

Courts can also modify their summons and/or include information about rental assistance on a supplemental sheet that goes out to parties. Likewise with the availability of legal aid, mediation, housing counselors, and financial counselors.

It is great when courts integrate those partners into their eviction diversion program, but in the short term, they should make sure they know who those providers are and that they are letting court users know about their availability.

Second, it’s important to know that recent guidance from the Treasury Department makes clear that American Rescue Plan Funds for State and Local Governments and for Emergency Rental Assistance can be used to fund eviction diversion programs, including counseling, navigators, and legal services (see fact sheet).

There are billions of dollars available through those two funding streams and courts are encouraged to tap those dollars for eviction diversion programs. Courts interested in establishing an eviction diversion program should start working on tapping those funds now.

Anything else Illinois court leaders should know about the tool?

Well, conceptually, we encourage courts to also build things like the tool. We made the tool with the help of our friends at Afterpattern, and encourage courts to consider their platform and others like it to create automated forms and guided interviews.

For example, we helped the Wyandotte County, Kansas District Court create a tool to help people resolve their traffic tickets. There is a lot of opportunity in meeting court users where they are and offering them customized information that is tailored to their needs and goals, as opposed to lumping everything on a single website and relying on the user to sift through everything to find the information they need.

On the eviction diversion front, we really hope that courts will take action now. The CDC eviction moratorium is just about over, so these cases are coming.

Courts are fortunate that, at this moment, there is an unprecedented amount of rental assistance funding available and that in many places legal aid is being funded to a greater degree than normal to assist with these cases.

Those resources, coupled with the fact that courts can use federal funds to establish a rental assistance program, really make this a particularly opportune moment for courts to innovate.

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