CHICAGO — Renters, be aware — there’s a new resource out to help get tenants free legal aid across Chicago, particularly in areas facing high eviction rates.
Rentervention is a free service created by Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, Illinois Legal Aid Online and the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois. It shows tenants how to advocate for themselves when it comes to things like evictions and maintenance issues that get even more pressing as autumn sets in and it becomes vital for renters to settle their living situations.
Tenants having issues that need to be sorted out with landlords can access Rentervention by visiting the website or texting “hi” to (866) 773-6873 to chat with Renny, an artificial intelligence-powered bot that can walk people through the often murky legal terrain of local housing laws. The bot allows tenants to advocate for themselves on relatively clear-cut issues so that they can make sure that their rights are enforced without paying for an attorney or waiting in line for pro-bono legal aid to become available.
The bot asks tenants a series of questions to figure out what kind of situation they need help with, whether it is a leaky ceiling, no heating in the winter, or an eviction notice. It can then create 33 types of legal letters that a renter can use to make sure their landlord is complying with their obligations, and shows them exactly how and when to use those legal documents to remedy the situation as best as possible.
Rentervention can also refer tenants under 200 percent of the federal poverty line to a virtual clinic that will connect them to a pro bono attorney that can offer legal advice on how best to self-resolve their situation.
The attorneys behind Rentervention are hoping it gets picked up by residents in areas like the West Side that are most affected by evictions. According to data collected by the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, the Austin neighborhood has the second-highest number of eviction filings in the city.
Even though residents are protected by a set of state and city tenant rights laws, those protections are meaningless without the ability to navigate and leverage them. But according to Hanna Kaufman of the Lawyers Trust Fund, there’s a huge gap in access to the legal services for low-income people most likely to be evicted, and there isn’t enough free legal aid available to meet the demand.
“We decided that one of the most impactful things that we could do would be to invest in figuring out scalable ways to serve large numbers of people who can’t afford a lawyer or don’t have access to one with their legal needs, for free,” she said.
Conor Malloy, an attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing and project director for Rentervention, said even though there’s a deficit in legal resources, the law still defines a clear pathway for people to protect themselves, as long as they have the right documents and follow the right procedures.
“The app allows people in Chicago to be able to access just an underutilized area of the law,” Malloy said. “There’s all sorts of law on the books that is designed to protect people. But if you don’t know it’s there, or if you do know it’s there but don’t know how to apply it, it’s not going to work for you.”
Malloy said he’s encountered many renters who encountered difficulties in getting landlords to properly maintain a unit. But since tenants often make demands for their landlords to fix the leaky roof or broken water pipes via text or email, their complaints don’t have the same legal backing as something like a 14-day demand letter that would hold up in court.
The Rentervention team has been doing outreach in West Side neighborhoods to help people get connected to the service, including a seminar in late September hosted by the Garfield Park Community Council for tenants and homeowners.
Residents in the neighborhood who have used the service have found it tremendously useful according to La Shone Kelly, a housing specialist with the Garfield Park Community Council. She noticed that by using the bot, tenants don’t have to wait for a pro bono attorney to become available, which can take weeks.
For small issues that are clear-cut and easily resolved, they can take action to remedy their living situation immediately rather than letting them fester into a toxic tenant-landlord relationship.
Evictions are also a major issue in Garfield Park, and Kelly said one eviction can snowball into a long-term difficult situation for tenants because it creates a stain on their record that can make it hard to find another place to live.
And while the application doesn’t have the capacity to expunge evictions from the record, Kelly said she has still found the service useful for connecting people to additional legal help like the virtual clinic that can provide the appropriate assistance to get those records sealed.
But most importantly, by placing the correct documents and processes within arms reach of tenants, Kelly said the service can help prevent circumstances from going as far as an eviction, and can empower renters to push back and protect themselves.
“Those issues are sensitive. If you don’t use the right document, and it’s not legal,” Kelly said. “So they take the guesswork out of what you should do.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
Do stories like this matter to you? Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.