Meet Your Neighbor: Rentervention.com & Chicago Tenants

(Special thanks to Hanna Kaufman of the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois for her time and insight)

Navigating landlord/tenant issues can be tricky for many Chicago apartment renters and can be especially complicated for people in low-income areas. Getting landlords to make necessary repairs or negotiating the return of a security deposit can be difficult, but tenants facing eviction often lack critical resources including representation. Legal resources for low income and underrepresented tenants can alleviate housing concerns, especially since eviction filing rates are higher in neighborhoods of color which lack such resources. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Hanna Kaufman of the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois about Rentervention.com, a new site that empowers Chicago tenants to exercise their rights and negotiate the legal process.

A collaborative effort between the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois, the Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing (LCBH) and Illinois Legal Aid Online, Rentervention.com is an online tool that allows Chicago tenants to think through a problem, develop appropriate letters and other documents, and get referred to legal services 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (Tenants can also text 'Hi' to 866-7RENTER to access the tool as the YouTube video demonstrates). Although limited to issues around repairs/conditions that affect livability and safety, security deposits, and eviction, Rentervention helps tenants through the process through using chatbots to determine the source of an issue and referring them to a "virtual clinic" (staffed by two full-time lawyers) for more extensive issues. (Although virtual clinic lawyers are available during normal business hours, Rentervention is working on after-hour access to attorneys).

Photo by Gordon Dymowski

Photo by Gordon Dymowski

In its first six months, Rentervention has made a significant impact in addressing the imbalance of legal resources between Chicago landlords and tenants, as well as helping guide people towards needed resources. By casting a wide net in their outreach, Rentervention.com ensures that everyone - including low-income residents - were able to access appropriate legal services and tools. Highlights of the site's overall impact include

  • Rentervention has been used in two-thirds of all Chicago zip codes, including 60647 (Logan Square), 60619 (Chatham), 60615 (Hyde Park), 60626 (Rogers Park)
    and 60611 (downtown)
  • 40% of Rentervention users have focused on concerns related to building conditions.
  • Rentervention users have spent 47 cumulative hours on the site, crafted 79 letters to send to landlords and downloaded tenant guides 127 times.

One of the more intricate tasks that Rentervention performs for Chicago tenants is assisting people in negotiating complicated situations in a scalable, sophisticated manner. As Ms. Kaufman explained, criminal law advocates for the notion that everyone is entitled to a lawyer, yet civil law (which involves issues such as housing, domestic violence, and custody among others) does not guarantee representation. When examining legal activity around evictions between landlords and tenants from 2010 to 2017, LCBH discovered that landlords were represented  79% of the time, while tenants had attorneys 11% of the time. Sixty-two (62) percent of tenants without legal representation had their cases result in eviction, while only 22% of cases with legal aid attorneys ended in eviction orders.

Photo by Gordon Dymowski

Photo by Gordon Dymowski

The other major impact that Rentervention has had on landlord/tenant legal concerns is the remediation of cases before they head into a formal court setting. Tenants who are seeking needed repairs in their apartment can use Rentervention to craft a formal letter to their landlord and avoid seeking legal redress. Knowing whether certain landlord/tenant policies applied to them provides Chicago tenants who use Rentervention an opportunity to understand their responsibilities. Finally, with relative anonymity and access via laptop or mobile device, Chicago tenants in low-income neighborhoods have the ability to engage and access legal services that may not be immediately available.

When I lived in St. Louis,  I became familiar with property management issues through writing a policy white paper on malicious landlords and problem properties. Negotiating landlord/tenant issues can be especially difficult but as Hanna Kaufman of the Lawyers Trust Fund informed me, Rentervention.com is working exactly as everyone involved had hoped. Although limited in its scope, Rentervention.com is ensuring that Chicago tenants know their rights under the law and have resources to exercise those rights. With housing issues becoming increasingly prevalent in current times, it is very heartening to know that there are tools like Rentervention.com that enable and empower every Chicago resident.

Thoughts or questions? Please leave your comments below or join the conversation via our Facebook page. Please check out other entries in our "Meet Your Neighbor" series or contact us directly via this email form.

And as always, thanks for reading!

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