By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown & Uptown News
After years of a housing shortage crisis, the region is facing a new crisis of missed rent and broken leases amid the economic downturn due to coronavirus. An analysis from global advisory firm Stout Risius Ross found 40% of renter households in the U.S. are at risk of eviction as eviction moratoriums wind down. People of color are particularly at risk, with 74% of Black renters and half of Hispanic renters saying they have little to no confidence they will stay in their homes, according to that analysis.
With the fear that this could spur a homelessness crisis, city and county government officials have added new protections, including an eviction moratorium, ban on late fees for rental payments and millions in rental assistance. However, they did not embrace rent cancellation pushed by housing advocates and the full funding of the rental assistance program proposed by Council Member Chris Ward.
As for commercial real estate, experts paint a grim picture. Jason Hughes, the CEO of Hughes Marino, said over one-third of office space in Downtown San Diego is vacant with some buildings 99% empty, which could lead to foreclosures in the future.
Among the county’s efforts to prevent widespread business closures and homelessness is a program with the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC). With a grant from San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), the NCRC has funding to mediate all commercial and real estate rental payment disputes.
“The county recognized that people are in conflict and reached out to us to hire us to facilitate mediation between landlords and tenants, both residential and commercial, recognizing that both sides have real concerns, and we could really help facilitate conversations that they might find alternative solutions,” Chris Hulburt, Director of Development at NCRC said.
NCRC has over 100 community members trained as mediators to handle the residential disputes for free. The volunteer mediators come from a variety of backgrounds. The organization has retired lawyers and judges to step in to commercial disputes, currently for a reduced fee.
The goal is to figure out a way for tenants and landlords to maintain relationship and survive the economic impact of the coronavirus. Often that includes negotiating deferred or partial payments because some income is better than no income for the landlord. Huburt said the most important first step is the negotiator learning the unique needs of the people in conflict and treating each tenant as different from the last.
“The most effective agreement is going to be one that everybody participates in shaping,” Huburt said.
The community mediation program has been in existence for 40 years and often dealt with rental disputes. However, there is a significant difference between previous rental disputes and current ones: there is no threat of eviction or late fees.
Hulburt also said the shared problems caused by the coronavirus is helping people find common ground during mediations. In the past, according to Huburt, landlords would sometimes get frustrated at their tenants’ inability to pay rent. Now when both sides come together, there is more understanding because they are facing the same issue even though their financial obligations are opposed.
“Everybody’s participating in the same story. That takes out the sense of judgment,” Huburt said. “Here everybody knows that this is happening because of circumstances outside of anyone’s control. So that sense of somebody being the bad actor isn’t present in these negotiations. That’s actually really helpful, because we can really start with the idea that everybody is in this together and therefore, we’re motivated to work together to find the common solution.”
Coronavirus has created new problems for the mediators though. In particular, going virtual makes it more difficult for the mediator to read the facial expressions and nonverbal cues of those involved in the conflict. Still, Zoom has proven to be very convenient and effective for conflict mediation because people no longer need to travel to Downtown San Diego. Breakout rooms in a Zoom meeting also mean the mediator can speak to each participant privately and learn confidential information.
NCRC is still reaching agreements in 85% of cases, the same as before the move to virtual.
Anyone interested in using NCRC’s mediation services for rent disputes can contact 619-398-0494. Commercial tenants can contact the organization’s West Coast Resolution Group at 619-238-7282.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.