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"The purpose of this hearing is to mediate and come to an agreement," says Villafane, one of nine housing specialists who handle landlord-tenant disputes in special housing courts around the state. "If we don't reach an agreement, then you go before the judge."
Seated to Villafane's right are the plaintiffs, an elderly man -- the landlord -- and his grown son. To his left are the defendants, a middle-aged man and wife -- the tenants.
Stacked on the shelves of a mostly empty bookcase is a set of Connecticut General Statutes. A little model dove, wings outstretched, dangles at the end of a slender thread tacked to a bulletin board.
There are no lawyers in the room.
Villafane asks the landlord what he wants. "Either they leave, or they pay all the back rent and the sheriff's service and court costs," is the reply.
The tenants are $3,300 behind, and the law is on the landlord's side. The question is whether -- and for how long -- they will to be allowed to stay.
This mediation session is just one of several thousand such confidential hearings conducted each year in Connecticut, the offspring of a grassroots movement here that created a separate system of housing courts in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The housing courts were intended to address several problems.
For one, tenants and their advocates often found it difficult to get landlords to make repairs, and both tenants facing eviction and landlords dealing with uncooperative tenants charged that it was hard to get a fair hearing.
With no system for settling differences out of court, time-consuming housing-related trials went forward, at great expense to everyone involved.
Welfare tenants, for example, were being thrown out of apartments -- only to be moved, in many cases, to expensive motels at great cost to the state.
In 1989 a solution was sought in the creation of the statewide Eviction Prevention Program to provide mediation services before cases get to court and a rent bank to give a temporary boost to tenants in danger of eviction.
While landlord-tenant mediation exists in other states, Connecticut has one of the oldest and most comprehensive arrangements.
Villafane is one of the state's nine trained housing mediators. He asks the landlord and his son to leave the room so he can talk privately to the tenants.
"I just returned back to work," says the husband, a painting contractor. "Now I'm in a position to do something. I'd like to work something out. We'd like to stay for a few months." Their son is hoping to graduate from the local high school, Branford High, in just a few weeks.
Villafane advises them to make an appealing offer or be prepared to face a judge who would be bound by law to authorize their eviction within five days.
"He may rule in their favor," warns Villafane. "The judge has no other choice than to go by the statute."
Villafane asks how they plan to make up the back rent, and the couple proposes $825 in four monthly installments. But when they are all back in Villafane's office, the landlord's son demands two payments of $1,650 each.
For the better part of the next hour, Villafane plays a game of shuttle diplomacy, trying to get the tenants to pay what they owe more quickly, trying to get the landlord to accept a less stringent schedule.
In the end, a middle course is steered, and all parties agree on three monthly payments of $1,100, with a final move-out date in September. The landlord will get everything he is owed, and the tenants will get four more months in their condo -- long enough to see their son graduate from the local high school and enough time to look for another place.
In Connecticut, virtually all eviction cases brought to court are put to mediation, and 96 percent of them result in settlements, according to housing court records.
The system "creates a dynamic that is designed to get people to take a step back and reflect," said Raphael L. Podolsky, chairman of the state's Citizens Advisory Council for Housing Matters. "If I can get 90 percent of what I want with the deal, do I really want to force this case to go to trial?"
The cost of evictions was a major factor in creation of the Eviction Prevention Program, operated by the Department of Social Services and 14 non-profit organizations across the state. Its rent bank has an annual budget of almost $1 million.
It is cheaper in many cases for the state to use rent bank funds to pay back rent under a mediated settlement -- keeping a family in an apartment --than to house an evicted family in an emergency shelter until permanent quarters can be found.
Officials of the program speaking at last year's National Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution estimated that in the previous four years it saved Connecticut $11 million in emergency shelter expenses, while landlords and banks seeking evictions had saved $4 million in legal fees.
Critics charge it is hard to evaluate the fairness of housing mediation because it is private and confidential. "It's hard to figure out exactly what does go on in the process," said James Stark, who teaches mediation at the University of Connecticut School of Law.
Others question whether the tenant will get a fair shake, especially in situations where mediation is conducted in crowded, noisy courthouse corridors or entryways as landlords and tenants wait to go before a judge.
"If there's no real opportunity for the tenant to pursue any defenses or claims they may have against the landlord, that's not really mediation," argues Richard H. Chused, a property law specialist at Georgetown University Law Center and a critic of the less extensive mediation system in Washington, D.C.
However, Judge Clarance J. Jones, on the bench in Connecticut for eight years in a variety of courts, believes his state's housing courts are the most user-friendly in the state for people without legal representation, who are usually the tenants.
"We have people here who will help them fill out the (housing court) forms and explain" how the court operates, said Jones.
Despite its apparent success in Connecticut, comprehensive housing mediation programs remain rare. A 1988 analysis by the National Housing Law Project, in Berkeley, Calif., turned up a variety of programs -- including sites in Chicago, Salt Lake City, Detroit, St. Louis, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York State and New Jersey -- but most were small or new, and some were only experimental.
As more states look to Connecticut's record, however, the practice may spread. In the opinion of Judge Jones, when mediation works it really represents justice in its purest form.
"I don't see how there could be something that's greater justice than a result agreed upon by the parties," he said. "There's not any higher form of justice that one can have than that."
Heriberto Villafane, New Haven Housing Court
(203) 789-7973, (203) 596-4061
Raphael L. Podolsky, Citizens Advisory Council for Housing (860) 278-5688
Judge Clarance J. Jones, Hartford Housing Court (203) 789-7973
National Housing Law Project (510) 251-9400
James Stark, University of Connecticut School of Law (860) 241-4679
Richard H. Chused, Georgetown University Law Center (202) 662-9010
Cynthia Teixeira, State of Connecticut (203) 789-7973
National Institute for Dispute Resolution, Washington, D.C. (202) 466-4764
Legal Aid and Defenders Association, Washington, D.C. (202) 452-0620
Shelley White, New Haven Legal Assistance Association (203) 777-4811
Robert Solomon, Yale Law School (203) 432-4760
Vic Feigenbaum, Hartford Housing Court (860) 566-8550
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