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Chapter Twenty Four: When Disputes Arise

Neighbors, tenants and landlords can be welcome acquaintances and friends, or they can become your worst nightmare. Whether they complain about the noise generated by your drumming sessions, or maintain smelly garbage in common hallways, conflicts may arise. Late rent, noisy neighbors, sloppy roommates or unfulfilled promises for repairs, maintenance or improvements can generate frustration, anger, despair and a nagging sense of disorder.

Mediation services can help resolve such issues before you feel forced to move, or they escalate into a legal situation. This chapter discusses the mediation process, and where to go for help when conflicts arise.


Conflict Resolution and Mediation

Most of life involves people and relationships: friends and lovers, roommates and neighbors, landlords and tenants, or business colleagues. Relationships are fragile. When misunderstandings and differences grow into disputes, and then escalate into conflicts, one or two things will happen:

  1. The problem will be resolved; or
  2. The conflict will continue.

If you cannot diffuse a conflict on your own, help in settling your differences might be valuable and welcome. Mediation is a voluntary process in which two or more disputing parties work with an impartial mediator to resolve the conflict. Unlike a judge or an arbitrator, whose decisions involve a winner and a loser, mediation is about finding a solution that works for all parties involved.

Before you take your dispute to court, consider mediation. Signs that mediation might be wise:

  • The dispute has been ongoing.
  • You want to preserve a relationship affected by the conflict.
  • The dispute is affecting your daily life.
  • You cannot afford the time and cost involved with litigation.
  • You would like to speak to the other party so they will hear your concerns
  • You would like to resolve the dispute yourself, without a third party and/or legal judgment.

The Mediation Process

Be proactive during the mediation process. Ask questions, listen carefully, be clear in your expectations, and analyze your needs. Through care and caution, you might eliminate problems before they happen.

Unfortunately, sometimes disputes become unmanageable, and escalate into ego contests that make negotiation impossible. Mediation adds structure to the discussion, and focuses participants' energies on the core issues and goal of facilitating resolution.

Mediators:

  • Do not make decisions for the people involved;
  • Will not cross-examine either party to determine guilt. This is not a court of law;
  • Will not provide counseling or psychotherapy for the participants; and
  • Do not provide legal advice.

Unfortunately, mediation can fail even if both parties reach a compromise. It is not a quick fix, but needs to be an adequate discussion and agreement about the entire problem and its many aspects. If the conflict is not examined thoroughly, you might only resolve part of the issue, and have to restart the mediation process to address hanging matters. Bring all your concerns to the table to find a long-term solution.

To avoid preventable disagreements, take precautions such as investigating a space or landlord (seller) prior to signing a lease or purchase agreement; this ensures that the space is zoned and suitable for your intended purposes. A common complaint for tenants utilizing spaces in commercial and industrial areas is that utilities are shut off at night and on weekends. A tenant may retaliate by withholding rent, and the landlord might react by taking the tenant to court for eviction and back rent. In this scenario, mediation may have lead to an amicable solution for all involved.

Another precaution: Be clear about the arrangements and expectations between sellers and buyers, landlords and tenants, neighbors and roommates. For example:

  • If an artist will use the rental space for work, does the landlord approve?
  • If a unit is purchased, will the homeowner association rules allow you to run a business out of your unit?
  • If you purchase a building, does the zoning allow for your kind of art production or performances?
  • Will the neighbors sign a release allowing you to modify the structure?
  • Will the Seattle Department of Planning and Development authorize you to live in a particular area or use the space in a manner not outlined in the City zoning ordinance?

All these questions must be considered carefully when leasing or purchasing a property in order to avert future (and possibly costly) disputes from arising. When mediation does not lead to a resolution satisfactory to both parties, you might need to pursue the matter in court.

Mediation Resources

Mediations may involve tenants and landlords, families, neighborhoods, employers, builders, real estate companies, and many other types of parties. You do not need to have pending legal issues or a lawsuit to seek mediation help. There are many mediation firms in Seattle - ask around and find referrals. Here are just a few to start:

http://www.mediate.com/index.cfm

http://www.eberlereidmediation.com/

http://www.synovec-mediation.com/pg7.cfm

People value mediation for many reasons, including:

  • Safety and convenience.
  • The service is free for cases involving civil mediations.
  • Mediation occurs within two weeks after all parties involved have been contacted, and takes place on neutral territory at a time all participants have agreed to.
  • About 70% of mediations are successful in solving the problem or inducing actions needed to resolve the issue.
  • Mediation is an informal process that allows you to articulate the issue in your own words. There is no need to bring a lawyer.
  • Mediation is confidential, and your privacy is respected. Mediators will not discuss anything they hear during the process.
  • A mediation session is not considered resolved until both parties are satisfied. There is no time limit set on the mediation session. Each session is determined by how much time is needed to work through the issues. .

Examples

The are mediation following case studies. Participants' names have been changed.

Property Owner vs. Developer
Marianne is a writer who works from home. Despite the extra effort it takes for a self-employed artist to obtain a mortgage, she bought a townhouse condo and was thrilled by her transformation from renter to owner. Her happiness ended abruptly, however, as floorboards popped up, cupboard doors refused to close, plumbing dripped, and her coveted balcony doors leaked cold air and rainwater.

For more than a year she complained to the developer and contractor, with no relief. She was put off, put down and ignored. She wrote a string of ineffective letters, each escalating in nastiness. She even had a lawyer write a letter, which was also ignored.

The disruptions to her home and writing space affected her work. Marianne was frustrated, and felt backed into a corner. She assumed that failure to get cooperation from the developer left her no other option but to force repairs through the legal system. Unfortunately, she knew she could not afford to pursue a lawsuit.

Marianne called a mediator for help. Although living with the conditions was becoming physically and emotionally unbearable, she feared she would lose all her money if she sold and moved. The mediator took Marianne's request for help, extending to the contractor an invitation to meet with her and a mediator to discuss this situation.

At the meeting, she and the contractor came to a very detailed agreement that included a walk-through of her home and a list of what would be done and when. In just three hours, two people who earlier would not look each other in the eye were telling jokes and finished the mediation session shaking hands. Most importantly, Marianne was able to get back to work, because the problems with her condo were fixed.

Roommate vs. Roommate
Tom and Jerry were both friends and roommates. Although they were initially excited about living together, they quickly learned that their lifestyles clashed. They had different expectations about what it meant to share space. Tom ate any and everything in the refrigerator, even when it belonged to Jerry. Jerry left spoiled food in the refrigerator until it turned to mush. There was too much noise, not enough cleaning up, and talking on the phone at all hours. Unable to resolve these differences, their disagreements escalated until the pair was referred by the police to mediation following an "incident."

It was hard to understand why these two wanted to remain roommates, but they did. During their mediation session, they sat down with a mediator, each with a laundry list of complaints - some minor, some major. They shouted, they cried, they accused. Eight hours later, they left with a three-page list of do's and don'ts. A year later, Jerry contacted a mediator and set up another meeting. This one was much shorter as the two adjusted the first agreement and amended new items to it.

Landlord vs. Tenant
Lou-Anne lived for three years in a one-bedroom apartment in a small building. She had her financial ups and downs, which happened to be mostly downs. She was quite conscientious in keeping her place neat and clean, and always, always paid the rent, but hardly ever on time. As a freelancer, her income became increasingly sporadic. Eventually, she could not keep up with her bills, and became overwhelmed. When she became two months behind in rent, her landlady filed for an eviction.

Lou-Anne and her landlady were referred to mediation from eviction court. The landlady informed the mediator that she was upset at the prospect of evicting Lou-Anne, but felt she had no other choice as she was losing money on the property. Lou-Anne was terrified at facing a possible eviction, since she did not have any family in the area to assist her financially. Lou-Anne was in the middle of an emotionally charged financial crisis.

As the discussion continued, Lou-Anne described her finances, what she earned, how she earned it, when she was paid and how she spent it. The landlady figured out the main reason Lou-Anne was behind was because she received the bulk of her income in the middle of the month. Lou-Anne had gotten into a financial pretzel by using a credit card to cover day-to-day expenses until her funds came in. She then tried to catch up on her late bills when the money arrived.

The landlady concluded that Lou-Anne, an otherwise good tenant, needed to get her money situation stabilized. Because she wanted to keep Lou-Anne as a tenant, she took the time to find a solution to the situation. With both of them sweating over how to pull this off, they worked out a multi-faceted plan.

The landlady proposed that Lou-Anne's rent not be due until after she received her biggest paycheck, around the 18th of each month. She also volunteered to help Lou-Anne create a monthly budget. While the mediator listened, the two of them came up with a budget and re-payment schedule.

As part of the budget, Lou-Anne and the landlady were able to set up a back-rent payment schedule. It took about two hours, and they went back to court with their written agreement. It provided that, as long as payments were made on time, the case would be dismissed. If there was a default, the landlady could obtain an immediate order for past due money and eviction.

Resources

National Association for Community Mediation (NAFCM)
Provides information and resources on conflict resolution and mediation, including articles, training, programs, grants, etc.

Property Management Resource Center
Provides do-it-yourself legal solutions for consumers and small businesses.



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