Although the beef between the two neighbors was long-standing, the depth of their animosity caught Benet Magnuson ’09 by surprise. When Magnuson, team leader with a new project at the Harvard Mediation Program, brought the women into a room to discuss their differences as part of the new tenant-to-tenant mediation project, the encounter nearly turned physical.
“That was extreme. It was much more violent than I expected it to be,” says Magnuson, who has been with Harvard Mediation Program (HMP) since he was a 1L, working in small claims courts and other venues to help people resolve their conflicts through mediation. Fortunately, he was able to de-escalate the situation before it turned violent, and the women came to an agreement—although the sessions now proceed under the watchful gaze of security guards.
Launched this fall, the tenant-to-tenant project is the latest effort at HMP, one of the Student Practice Organizations at HLS through which 1L students as well as upperclassmen represent clients in real cases. The project connects HLS students trained in mediation to help resolve disputes between tenants in local housing authorities, which provide subsidized housing for elderly and low-income residents. So far, HMP mediators have conducted mediations between tenants living in housing authorities in Somerville, Melrose, Natick, Needham and Arlington, and the program has established contacts with other housing authorities in the Boston area. Not only does the project offer HMP students more opportunities to hone the skills they learn in training, but it furthers the program’s commitment to assisting the wider community. So far, four 1L students and about the same number of upperclassmen have participated, with Magnuson acting as a mentor for new students.
Cases arising in small claims court are pretty straightforward, Magnuson says, such as disputes over whether an auto mechanic charged too much or whether a store owes a refund. By contrast, the tenant cases “are challenging because they’re much more emotional and much more about personal dynamics,” he says. “People are living in what’s equivalent to a densely populated small town.” There are often issues of mental health, poverty, and substance abuse involved. “Disputes tend to be about the sorts of issues you’d expect with people living next to each other: the use of shared space, noise, respect for each other, issues with kids or pets, and sometimes, violence,” he says.
Mike Steinberg, advanced case coordinator at HMP and an attorney who supervises the students there, says, “Mediating these cases is difficult because of the personal issues many tenants are dealing with, aside from whatever dispute is happening. Benet brings a sensitivity to their needs that’s really remarkable.”
Tenants are responding favorably to the new program, says Magnuson, in part because it moves much faster than the traditional system by which tenants must file a complaint with the housing authority, wait while there’s an investigation, and then go through a hearing and other steps. It’s usually within a week of getting a referral that the Harvard students can set up a meeting between the tenants, Magnuson says. This quick process helps avoid escalation of the conflict, which can result in violence and the parties being evicted.
It’s also very cost-effective, especially compared to litigation. “In an hour, we often see demonstrable improvements in interactions between people,” says Magnuson, who’s also a teaching assistant to Clinical Instructor Stephan Sonnenburg for the popular Negotiation Workshop at the Negotiation and Mediation Clinic. “I was mediating one case where it was clear they’d been at each other’s throats for a long time,” Magnuson recalls. “The whole mediation only lasted an hour, and by the end, they’d come to pretty good terms.”