To Stop the Eviction Tsunami, We Need Online Chats

August 28, 2020

Ask Todd Nuccio, Iowa’s state court administrator, how the pandemic is going to impact renters, and he’ll tell it to you bluntly: Iowa might soon be staring down an “eviction tsunami.” Across the country, an estimated 32 percent of American households missed their rent payments in July. The number of eviction filings per week is still well below pre-pandemic levels, but depending on whom you ask, 12 million to 29 million renters might be at risk of ending up in court before the end of the year. But Nuccio has a weirdly simple plan to help address this awful tide: He’ll pull tenants and their landlords into an online legal chat.

Nuccio’s online system could really help. Instead of asking tenants to show up in person, on schedule, at a crowded courthouse, they’re invited to communicate instead through what looks like an advanced version of iMessage, with color-coded chat bubbles for the mediator, the plaintiff, and the defendant. These exchanges don’t need to happen in real time: a harried party can type a message whenever they have a moment free. Judges in Utah, where ODR is used for small claims cases, refer to the platform as “pajama court,” with one noting, “You [can] do it at 2 o’clock in the morning, in your robe, in your slippers, from the comfort of your home.” Another plus is that the system kicks in before anyone has to go to fully-dressed court. If ODR fails, the two parties can proceed to a formal hearing as usual.

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