Just Court ADR by Susan M. Yates,Jennifer Shack, Heather Scheiwe Kulp, and Jessica Glowinski.
RSI started running three foreclosure mediation programs in 2014, which means we’ve spent a lot of time over the last year thinking about how to make mediation services more accessible and increase program usage rates. Such issues can be a challenge and often require creativity, especially with limited resources. Here’s what we’ve learned:
Meet People Where They’re At
Reaching the homeowners who would personally benefit from our services is always a challenge. In an effort to spread the word about our foreclosure mediation program, we’ve attended countless city council meetings, real estate events, church events and even carnivals. While getting out into the community is really important for forging relationships with community leaders and getting press coverage about mediation services, it can be a difficult way to identify and connect with those we serve. The more that outreach efforts can directly target a pool of eligible program participants, the better. However, this kind of targeted outreach, such as going door-to-door to homeowners in foreclosure, can be extremely expensive and labor-intensive. The alternative, which we have found to be both effective and efficient, is to have homeowners referred directly into the mediation program when they come to court to appear for their foreclosure case.
Judges began referring cases on the court’s own motion on January 1st in our Lake County foreclosure mediation program, and the program has already felt the difference. When only traditional program entry was available, meaning that homeowners had to learn about the program from their foreclosure summons or a mailed postcard, nine homeowners entered the mediation program in October, eight entered the program in November and eight entered the program in December. In January, twelve homeowners entered the program through the traditional route and seven more have entered through the new method of court referral, nearly doubling program entry over prior months. If homeowners cannot be referred directly by the judge, there are still ways to connect with them when they come to court. For example, Kane County has had success with staffing a foreclosure help desk at the court where homeowners can learn about the mediation program’s services.
Streamline the Process
Even if homeowners hear about the foreclosure mediation program, they are bound to have a lot of questions about the mediation process and may wonder how the program can help them. If the answers to their questions aren’t clear, participation rates will dwindle, despite other outreach efforts. When we were concerned that homeowners were having a difficult time figuring out how to navigate our Kane County foreclosure mediation program, we partnered with Northwestern Law School’s Center on Negotiation and Mediation. Students helped our program design a homeowner video that explains the program in clear steps and with plain language. Every homeowner that reaches out to the program gets emailed a link to access the video.
In our Lake County program, we noticed that few of the homeowners who live farther away from program information sessions enrolled in the mediation program. These sessions were created as a mandatory part of the mediation program, but between work schedules, kids and lack of transportation, the sessions were becoming an obstacle to program entry. As a result, we’ve proposed rule changes that allow homeowners to get the information they need online or by phone.
Identify Your Allies and Build Those Relationships
In all of our programs, the homeowners’ first information about the mediation program is in the notice they receive with their foreclosure summons and complaint. However, RSI knew that wasn’t enough. We wanted to send additional mailings, but didn’t have an efficient way to get the homeowner contact information we needed to send these communications. The solution was a partnership with Woodstock Institute, a non-profit research and policy institute. Woodstock helped us get access to the data we needed. They also help us to better communicate with our program stakeholders by providing us with heat maps that measure how program usage rates compare to total foreclosure filings.
We also work closely with our housing counseling partners on outreach efforts. These organizations know their communities and are trusted by local leaders. Such local expertise is invaluable, since outreach strategies need to be tailored to fit the particular needs and resources of the community.
Repetition Works – Tell ‘Em and Tell ‘Em Again
One mantra about outreach that we have definitely found to be true is the need for repetition. Homeowners need options for how they learn about a program. A notice attached to the summons might go unread, but a neon yellow postcard with a court seal might catch a homeowner’s eye. A homeowner might log on to start a program application on a program intake site, an option in our Winnebago and Boone Counties program, but might have trouble completing the process and need to be called or emailed. Even homeowners who open all of the mail and follow the process closely may be intimidated by or unfamiliar with mediation. They may need to hear about the program multiple times and in different formats before they follow up. Even after a homeowner enters the program, our follow-up work isn’t finished. Our mediation program coordinators all work closely with housing counselors to continue to reach out to homeowners as they move through the process, helping ensure that homeowners complete necessary paperwork and submit documents within the prescribed deadlines.
Once you design and implement a mediation program, you want to make sure that the program’s resources are benefitting as many people as possible. While outreach can be a challenge, it’s a necessary part of running a successful program. What outreach tactics have you tried? What worked and what didn’t?
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