New mediation program for landlords and tenants, emergency aid to renters, to be provided by Housing Initiatives of Princeton

Housing Initiatives of Princeton, a local nonprofit that helps low-income working families and individuals in and around Princeton avoid homelessness by providing them with transitional housing and temporary rental assistance, will manage a new round of rental assistance for people who need financial support to pay rent as the pandemic continues.

The new funding totalling $319,537 comes from a federal community development block grant, municipal officials said.

Carol Golden, the head of the Housing Initiatives board, said the organization provided a fair amount of rental assistance to residents of Princeton and surrounding communities in the fall. With the new round of funding, the organization will be able to help people pay up to three months of rent. The money can be used for rent going forward or to help tenants who are in arrears catch up and pay back rent.

“It’s hard for people to make ends meet during the pandemic, and the biggest expense is rent,” Golden said. “Eventually the eviction moratorium is going to be lifted, and the goal is to help people not be in such a deep hole at that time that there is no way they can ever catch up.”

Retired judge Philip Carchman helped develop a mediation program run by volunteers that will bring landlords and tenants together to negotiate payment amounts and timelines. The process will help stretch the organization’s dollars more and help landlords and tenants reach a compromise so that the tenants are safe and landlords are not without funds.

Carchman said the goal is for landlords and tenants to resolve issues regarding outstanding rent and to reach an agreement for a three-month period, with the landlord giving the tenant the wherewithal to remain at the rental property. The mediation process will involve the landlord, the tenant, a tenant’s advocate, an interpreter if needed, a mediator, and someone to manage the technology for the virtual mediation sessions. The Mercer County Bar Association is sending a letter to members seeking volunteers to serve as mediators and advocates. Carchman said a pilot mediation session was a success.

“We were very pleased to find we had a successful mediation,” Carchman said. “The landlord and tenant agreed on a rent to cover the three-month period. We see this as a program that can work, and we are hoping we will have the volunteers necessary to make it work.”

The mediation program is meant to take place before any actions are filed against tenants in court so that evictions are not hanging over tenants’ heads and are not placed on people’s records. When people have an eviction on their records, it makes it much harder for them to get their lives in order and rent in the future, housing advocates say.

Princeton Councilwoman Eve Niedergang asked whether the organization considered developing a formula, for example getting landlords to accept a flat rate of 75 percent of the rent that is due. “Or will it be sui generous, in and of itself?” Niedergang asked.

Carchman said each case has particular circumstances. Sometimes a tenant has the wherewithal to contribute to the rent. In some cases, payment of more than 75 percent is required. “The optimal scenario would be for a landlord and tenant to talk to each other without our intervention,” Carchman said.

“Communication is key,” Golden said, noting that applicants for relief must certify their incomes. The person seeking relief must be a leaseholder.

Councilman David Cohen said he thought tenants shouldn’t try to settle things with the landlord themselves and instead should use mediation.

“A rare tenant will have the savvy and legal knowledge to negotiate successfully,” Cohen said. “I’d prefer that people use mediation, for the tenant’s sake and for stretching money.”

Cohen asked whether the tenants can also get legal assistance outside of the mediation process. Volunteer Lawyers for Justice is working to help get lawyers to serve as advocates for tenants. The organization also handles landlord-tenant issues on an ongoing basis.