The Alaska Court System recently received a grant to establish a program to help resolve housing disputes between tenants and landlords without heading to court.
The court system recently announced it’s received a grant from the National Center for State Courts called the Eviction Diversion Initiative which aims at improving eviction diversion efforts while also improving upon housing stability across the state, according to a news release from the Alaska Court System.
Alaska is one of several states nationwide — Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, New York, Tennessee, Wisconsin, as well as the District of Columbia — to be selected to receive this grant and Alaska’s court system will now become part of a national network of state courts committed around reforming housing courts.
According to Jeannie Sato, Alaska Court System Director of Access to Justice Services, the state of Alaska received this grant more from the popular and unique idea presented and less because of an overwhelming crisis of evictions within the state. Funding for the Eviction Diversion Initiative was made possible through a $10 million Wells Fargo Foundation grant awarded to the National Center for State Courts to help improve upon eviction diversion efforts within state courts and increase housing stability, according to the Alaska State Court System.
“Alaska has a pretty good national reputation for our programs, the Alaska court system, we have a lot of programs that we start, and then other states follow,” Sato said. “So, receiving this grant wasn’t about the numbers of evictions, it was about us creating a program that was new and innovative. The idea was if we got good data and good results then it could be something that could be copied in other places. It was more about ‘what’s your idea’ rather than ‘how many evictions do you have.’”
Sato said this is an unusual grant in the sense that funding received will go toward hiring a dedicated staff person to implement an Alaska-specific model, and they’ve just recently hired a new attorney, Will Walker, who has already begun the process of building the program. The program’s main objective will be to create a sustainable program to help landlords and tenants resolve housing disputes because as Sato pointed out, based on the court’s research, much of the issue seemed to be a lack of accurate information prior to tenants and landlords reaching a trial.
The courts met with housing groups to find out what would help tenants and much of what they heard back from the lawyers that represent landlords was that a lot of people who have never been evicted don’t really know that much about eviction law or how it works, and sometimes just like anything in life, there can be urban legends or myths.
“People might be talking at the bar and someone will say something like, ‘They can’t evict you if the temperature is below zero,’ well, that’s not true. So, what we were hearing from the landlord lawyers is that sometimes tenants just talk with friends, and they have bad advice,” Sato said. “Our thought was when this problem is starting for either side, if they could both contact Alaska Legal Services and get good legal information, then they’re informed and could have that conversation that they then don’t have to sometimes show up in court when by that time it can be a really expensive hassle.”
Through this new program, tenants and landlords will be offered a host of resources, such as mediation services, housing and financial counseling, and rental assistance programs. Landlords and tenants may choose to use the program’s resources before they file a court case, allowing them to avoid the cost and time involved in traditional litigation. Services will also be available after starting an eviction case if either party was unaware of the earlier program.
The development comes as evictions have seen a slight uptick following a lapse of federal and state laws that barred evicting people for failure to pay rent that were in effect for much of the pandemic.
Family Promise for Juneau Executive Director Katherine Carlson said that while she does feel her office has seen an increase in eviction-related calls, she says it could be related to a number of factors. Family Promise Juneau is a nonprofit that helps address family homelessness.
“It could be related to the eviction moratorium, the Alaskan Housing and Finance Corporation has put through a lot of funding over the years and as we’ve worked through COVID, all of that funding is kind of coming to an end, so I think that’s another aspect that could play into it, as well, “Carlson said.
Carlson said her agency on average receives between five to 10 phone calls a month from people seeking services and needing help with rent or needing shelter. So far, they’ve received over 160 phone calls in 2022, which Carlson said is an overwhelming amount of contact. Carlson also added that within those calls, they’re also seeing a new demographic emerge consisting of people working above the poverty line also needing assistance.
“Over the last five to six months, we are seeing a big uptick in people that we’re working with who are making $60,000 a year that are struggling because the cost of inflation or rent in our community has increased significantly and it’s getting hard for people to manage,” said Carlson. “I do think we’re working with a larger demographic now of people who are just struggling to keep it together financially.”
Sato said such trends are not the motivation for applying for the grant. Instead, she said it was more a matter of being an opportunity to make housing issues better for Alaskans.
“I’m the director of access to justice at the court which is part of the court administration and the staff of 18, our two goals at all times are excellent customer service and increasing access to justice,” Sato said. “So, it doesn’t matter how many people are getting evicted, if we can make it a better experience, then we’ve done a good job for Alaskans. We’re in the service profession, the court is a service.”
•Contact reporter Jonson Kuhn at firstname.lastname@example.org.