CHICAGO — Despite a statewide moratorium on evictions, many out-of-work tenants unable to pay rent because of the coronavirus shutdown are in need of legal advice.
As tenants grapple with what will happen when the moratorium ends, a group of lawyers has stepped in to offer free legal advice with the help of an artificial-intelligence powered chat bot.
The Rentervention website was launched last year as a free service by the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, Illinois Legal Aid Online and the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois. The site uses a chat bot to show tenants their rights when they encounter issues with a landlord like evictions and maintenance. The chat bot initially allowed tenants to describe their unique situation, then offered advice and drafted actionable legal letters that a renter could use in court to make sure their landlord was compliant with the local housing laws.
But now that so many tenants are struggling to pay rent after being laid off or furloughed, the site has been revamped to help folks deal with the unprecedented situation. The site now has dedicated functions to help tenants navigate the complex housing issues they may be experiencing due to COVID-19, and can also direct renters to attorneys that can offer pro bono legal advice.
Rentervention has always had a virtual clinic where tenants could connect to pro bono attorneys for help, but it previously only referred users to the live attorneys for a narrow range of complex housing issues. But now that the coronavirus pandemic forced many renters out of work, more lawyers are volunteering their time to offer virtual legal advice through the site, according to Conor Malloy, an attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing and project director for Rentervention.
“This is a time like no other…. Now we have so many attorneys out there that want to be able to help that we’re able to break down the barriers into the virtual clinic. So a lot more people have access to the virtual clinic than before,” he said.
Since the stay at home order and eviction moratorium will eventually end, Malloy said people who are behind on rent can use legal advice now before they negotiate with landlords.
“We want to be able to prep people before they go into mediation, before they pick up the phone to their landlord, or even do that call ourselves to be able to work out a plan, because we heard about some property managers and property groups out there are becoming aggressive with these things,” Malloy said.
Besides questions about the eviction moratorium, Malloy said lawyers have fielded many questions about tenants’ rights during a quarantine. Those question include whether a landlord can enter your property while we are supposed to be social distancing, whether late payments may be deducted from security deposits and whether tenants have a right to repairs despite missed rent payments.
“We’re able to take those into the chat and be able to say… This is this is not just a problem between you and your landlord. This is a legal problem, and so here are the resources available,” Malloy said.
Tenants can get legal assistance on the Rentervention site or by texting “hi” to 866-773-6873.
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?
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