M.V. Mediation sees spike in housing and family disputes

State provides funds to Face-to-Face programs that deal with consumer and landlord-tenant issues.

0
MV Mediation — which saw a recent uptick in housing and family disputes — has received a sizable grant from the Attorney General's office. — Lucas Thors

Updated Aug. 5

The Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program (MVMP) is receiving its third year of grant funding from a state program designed to support the resolution of consumer and landlord-tenant disputes.

Attorney General Maura Healey has awarded $1.9 million in grant funding for local consumer mediation programs through the Local Consumer Aid Fund to help advocates for consumers across the state on a variety of issues.

In this case, MVMP is receiving money from the Face-to-Face (FTF) grant fund, which supports programs that facilitate mediation and disputes that take place in trial courts, small claims courts, and program offices.

The relief funds come at a time when tenants and landlords alike are in flux following a new eviction moratorium issued by President Joe Biden on Tuesday that will likely face court challenges from entities like the National Association of Realtors.

After several extensions, the original eviction moratorium ended on July 31, so folks were being evicted for several days before Biden’s proclamation.

It is uncertain whether the latest moratorium extension will withstand opposition, but it will at least buy time for the estimated 7 million people and families facing eviction, while the $45 million federal rental assistance package is prepared.

According to executive director of MVMP, Sara Barnes, summer is always one of the busiest times of year for them — their paces increase, they get more inquiries — which is why the funds couldn’t come at a better time. 

MVMP is receiving $16,500 from the FTF program this year, and has received $15,000 annually for the past two years. 

One benefit to receiving funds that cover a broad range of mediation and dispute resolution services, according to Barnes, is that MVMP can bolster programming in ways that will best support the communities they serve. “Someone might have a dispute with a business, it could be with a contractor, it could be with a business that is trying to get paid. It also includes housing, so it’s a very broadly defined group of disputes and cases that come under the Attorney General’s support,” Barnes said.

She noted that this past year, the mediation program has experienced its biggest year of reporting so far, with a total of 6,900 contacts overall. “That means if we sent an email, made a phone call, or sent a paper letter, those are all recorded and reported out,” Barnes said. “That gives an idea of how much work it takes to set up a case.”

While a significant number of those contacts are from Bristol County — where MVMP recently began operating in November of last year — Barnes said they have also been expanding their reach on Martha’s Vineyard.

Although the initiative isn’t covered by grant funding from the Attorney General, the mediation program has been working closely with members of the Brazilian Portuguese community on the Island to provide support for issues they may be having at home, in the family, or in the workplace. 

Barnes highlighted the fact that MVMP is capable of doing family mediations in Portuguese, either with an English-speaking mediator and a Portuguese-speaking interpreter, or for divorce-related disputes, the program has an experienced Brazilian Portuguese divorce mediator. “That has been a huge step forward for us, and we are really proud to be able to serve that major segment of the community,” Barnes said. She said the program will look to raise funds for that initiative soon to increase outreach to that population.

In the past year, MVMP has had 99 referrals coming in from other agencies, and out of the 60 actual mediations they facilitated, 52 of them ended with formal agreements between the parties — a testament to the efficacy of relying on mediation before resorting to litigation.

A good portion of the grant funds from the Attorney General’s office will go toward paying part of the salary for MVMP’s program coordinator, Nancy Grundman. The work Grundman does is integral to the success of dispute resolution services, such as setting up cases, communicating with prospective clients, clearing up misinformation about the mediation process, and working out how a specific agreement is going to be signed. “This funding certainly helps us give [Grundman] all the time she needs to do the important work she does,” Barnes said.

This past summer, the mediation program has received a large number of family cases that can become very involved and take long periods of time to get resolved. Some cases take many sessions between parties, and are eventually resolved with a divorce packet that the parties bring to court for a mutually agreed upon divorce (although not all family cases are divorce cases).

“Sometimes we are simply helping people communicate with each other, or maybe renegotiating agreements they have made in the past,” Barnes said. “Those are the ones we have been seeing an uptick of recently.”

This summer, MVMP also saw a significant spike in the amount of housing-related disputes, although most of those came from Bristol County. Barnes described the total amount of money that changed hands in these kinds of resolutions as shockingly high, at nearly $464,000. A lot of those resolutions break down to long standing lease and rental issues where people have not been able to pay their rent because they lost their source of income during COVID, and MVMP was able to make use of Eviction Diversion Initiative (EDI) relief funds provided by the commonwealth to create a payment plan for clients.

In the coming months, Barnes urged folks who are concerned about their housing situation to reach out to the MVMP housing office, which has a staff of full-time mediators. “If people are having housing conflicts, we would like to get to them sooner instead of later, so that if you are having trouble with your landlord or with your tenant, we are here to try and help early on in the process. Our housing office is very generously funded by the governor through the EDI program,” Barnes said. 

Updated to clarify that the MVMP housing office is funded partially by the governor through the EDI program. —Ed.