Students meeting with community members as they work together to craft the mediation program. Photo credit: Anas Almassrahy

Ball State urban planners have worked with community members to create an innovative mediation program to help renters and landlords negotiate difficulties in payments, housing repairs, and other issues. The program will launch this summer in Delaware County Courts and is one of four proposals in various stages of implementation to improve rental housing conditions.

John West, assistant professor of urban planning, has wrapped his graduate-level Qualitative Methods and Social Justice class around the concept of housing justice for three years, teaming up with renters, landlords, and experts at PathStone, Habitat for Humanity, the southside 8twelve Coalition, and Avondale United Methodist Church.
In April his students presented four programs, including the renter-landlord mediation program, during a webinar attended by more than 40 city and county government officials, non-profit executives and real-estate professionals. It was a culmination of a semester’s work for them, but the ideas have been percolating through West’s work for three years.

The work is animated by deep connections with and the participation of residents who face eviction. Previous classes have met in a church basement with renters and landlords participating in class activities. Some renters live in rental housing with caved-in walls and no heat or have predatory landlords, West said. Earnest and frustrated landlords who seek a level playing field—one in which they are not competing with slumlords—were also participants in the classes’ work.

“What I’ve learned from three years of working with the community and listening to renters’ stories, is that people don’t know their rights and they don’t know how to get help,” West said. “Our proposals would create a one-stop help center for renters, ensuring they get to the most appropriate providers quickly.”

The four student-led, community-supported proposals included the tenant-landlord mediation program, a rental assistance hotline, a landlord grading system based on inspections, and an eight-county eviction prevention program.

Previous classes, with assistance from West’s frequent community partners, created a renter’s handbook that contains advice, form letters, code citation information, instructions and contact lists. It is organized by the kinds of problems a renter or landlord might face. The book has been edited by legal volunteers and was adopted by the housing assistance agency PathStone Corporation which hosts the content on its website.

“Dr. West has done a really, really great job of making his classes into these longitudinal things that build on each other,” says graduate student Jacob Ihrie. “I don’t know of any other university that does that. Most urban planning programs are in larger metropolitan areas, and since Ball State’s is situated in this rustbelt community that experiences a lot of challenges it gives us an opportunity to see how communities are struggling and adapting. It’s awesome that our department takes an active role in making our community better.”

Ihrie edited the renter’s handbook for publication as part of a graduate assistantship that placed him at PathStone for two semesters.PathStone will provide the attorneys with training and information about local assistance for renters, especially critical now as the effects of Covid-19 are expected to ripple through the low-income housing community.

“Our partnership with BSU around rental advocacy has been incredibly productive,” said Annette Phillips, Indiana Community Development Director at PathStone, “As an affordable housing provider and a HUD housing counseling agency, unfortunately we see the eviction crisis from both sides. Renter issues are really tough and sometimes very complicated even when there are community partners who care and want to help. Having grad students working with us this semester increased our capacity to actually accomplish important strides toward eviction prevention.”

Like Phillips, Anderson is quick to praise the students’ contributions to the community. They are the ones who located a similar program in Ohio, studied its success rates, and brought the idea to the community.

“Jacob and Emma were the catalyst,” Anderson said. “Had Jacob not reached out to us, we would never have even known that (a county in Ohio) was doing this eviction mediation. We would never have thought to look into it.”

For the past three springs, students have been meeting with community members.

Anderson says there is a desire locally to start the program quickly, even while waiting to see if Ihrie’s assistance with grant applications will pay dividends. Court filings have continued throughout the Covid-19 epidemic, although cases have not been heard. Anything that can be handled through mediation will help the judges catch up.

Judge Kimberly Dowling is among champions of the program.

She said other judges around the state are comparing notes about how to set up eviction mediation programs, and she believes Delaware County’s will be the first in the Hoosier state.

“We’ve seen the impact evictions have on the community, on the state at large,” she said. “We all really want to see this kind of mediation program work.”

“If people are evicted from their homes, if they cannot stay where they are, it causes everything else in their lives to crumble,” she said. Eviction disrupts schooling and employment and causes stress. “If we can provide that stability for them, it will have a huge impact.”

It’s not just the tenants who will benefit, Dowling said, but also the landlords who can save time and money by keeping tenants they already have.

West is working to create a regional rental housing consortium with monthly meetings to help assure that all four of this semester’s student proposals catch as much fire as the eviction mediation program has. He is also the founder and board president of the Muncie Land Bank, a non-profit organization that finds ways to acquire and reuse abandoned and blighted properties.

“My goal is to build institutions in East Central Indiana that address real and pressing needs,” he said.

The work is important in part because rental problems are endemic to Indiana and likely to get worse as a result of the recent pandemic; state-wide there is a great need for eviction-related services because Indiana cities have a higher number of evictions in comparison with much larger urban areas.