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In 2020, St. Louis Mediation Project Is A Lifeline For Tenants, Landlords Alike

KaDrea Harrison doesn’t particularly enjoy asking for help. So when she was unable to work because of COVID-19 and fell behind on rent earlier this year, she hesitated telling her leasing office. But now she’s glad she did, because it was quick to direct her to something called the St. Louis Mediation Project.

“I was nervous at first during the mediation program, because I’m like, ‘Oh no, I don’t want everyone to know what’s going on,’” Harrison told St. Louis on the Air. “But after speaking with [the mediation project staff], it was like, you know, talking to regular people, just letting them know what’s going on and getting help.”

For Harrison, the process is still underway, but her outlook about her financial future is much more hopeful now.

“Basically it’s not over, and I have help, and because of the arrangements, it’s not a hopeless loss,” said Harrison, who is also now back at work.

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File photo / Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
Elad Gross is the outreach coordinator for the St. Louis Mediation Project.

On Tuesday’s talk show, host Sarah Fenske talked with Elad Gross, outreach coordinator for the St. Louis Mediation Project. They delved into how the project is providing much-needed resources to both tenants and landlords who have found themselves in a tricky bind this year amid eviction moratoriums and lost income.

The effort is a partnership between Washington University School of Law, St. Louis County Courts, United States Arbitration & Mediation, Beyond Housing and others dealing with the eviction crisis. And it has Gross answering questions from both tenants and landlords all day long lately.

It was just two days after he lost his primary bid for Missouri attorney general earlier this year that Gross changed his focus after receiving a phone call from Karen Tokarz, a law professor.

“[She’s] a wonderful person who’s been leading this project and the clinic at Wash U for quite some time, and she said, ‘I know I probably shouldn't be calling you so soon, but I really need help [with] these eviction problems that are happening in the county.’”

Gross was already passionate about housing-related issues even before he got involved.

“Those [courts] get packed very quickly, folks don’t have much representation, it’s kind of in and out, and folks don’t know what their rights are,” he explained. “And the mediation itself really saves so much time — it gets you better outcomes.”

When Fenske asked Gross about the challenges of working with both landlords and tenants, who are often at odds in housing situations, he acknowledged that the process can be tricky and full of “opposing views.”

“Somebody wants their money, somebody doesn’t have their money, whatever it might be, and that’s where mediation serves such an important role,” Gross said. “You get folks together. … And I think folks want to see better outcomes, folks want to be able to pay, folks want to keep tenants in their housing. They don’t want to go through the rush of finding another tenant and, you know, all of the costs that are associated with going to court and everything else.”

St. Louis resident Mark Jacob called into the show. He’s a real estate attorney who’s been serving as a volunteer mediator in St. Louis County. He said he’s found it to be “incredibly successful.”

“I think the key to it is allowing the landlords an opportunity to talk to the tenants, whereas many of them have probably felt that the tenants, because they’re not able to pay, have not been communicating with the landlord, and the landlord’s at their wits’ end,” Jacob said, “which is why they filed [a] lawsuit. … This is an opportunity for them to sit down, to lower the emotional temperatures with an independent third party who’s neutral, who’s just trying to facilitate conversation, and allows each side to say, ‘Tell me what’s going on. How did we get here?’”

Shannon Keating, a Bridgeton, Missouri, resident, left St. Louis on the Air a voicemail message. Until recently she had been renting a house and had a roommate situation that was not working out. Keating said there was a clause in her lease that allowed the agreement to be terminated early for a fee of $2,000.

“When I presented this to the landlord, she was not willing to work with me and suggested that if my roommate didn’t also want to terminate the lease then she would not be able to do anything,” Keating said. “It took reaching out to several legal advocacy groups on my behalf to solve the dispute. And just over the weekend I was able to come to an agreement with the landlord and my former roommate.”

In response to Keating’s story, Gross emphasized these situations can be quite complicated, and that’s why it’s so important that mediations are voluntary and confidential.

“The reason for that is I want folks to be honest so that we can have everything out on the table … we’re not hiding the fact that this is happening with the roommate or that this is a provision in the contract. And that way we’re all open with each other. Now at the end of the day if they don’t agree and they want to keep that stuff confidential, done, that’s what the deal is. But yeah, we’ve dealt with all kinds of situations.

“And I will say this: As mediators, we’re not there to provide legal representation for either side. We don’t represent the landlord, we don’t represent the tenant. Now there are some situations that come to us, and they don’t need a mediation — they need a lawyer. And there are some wonderful organizations out there that we can refer folks to if they need that help.”

People seeking help from the St. Louis Mediation Project, which primarily serves St. Louis County, may call 314-833-0226 or email coordinator@stlmediationproject.org. In St. Louis, Gross recommends contacting either the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council or Wash U’s Civil Rights, Community Justice & Mediation Clinic.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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