Rentervention connects renters with legal services, virtually

By Lauren Leazenby, News Editor

Vicki Lei

The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard on renters. In Illinois, as many as half of them are not confident they will be able to pay the next month’s rent, according to an Aug. 7 report by the Aspen Institute.

That means between 1.1 and 1.7 million people in Illinois are at risk of eviction. Few realize, however, that legal assistance is as close as the cell phone in their pocket.

The eviction moratorium, created by a Sept. 2 order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and set to expire at the end of this year, was designed to prevent this from happening.

In addition, city and state ordinances already protected renters from eviction due to financial problems caused or exacerbated by the pandemic, and Chicago’s COVID-19 Eviction Protection Ordinance, in place since June, extended the time a tenant has to respond to a landlord’s intent to file for eviction.

But not all tenants know their rights, or how to protect themselves when a landlord seeks to evict them. They may not realize that under an executive order extended by Gov. J.B. Pritzker until Jan. 11, they must notify their landlord in writing that they are protected by an eviction moratorium. And with high rates of unemployment and a slowed economy due to COVID-19, this puts millions in danger of eviction.

“When people get evicted, it pushes people further into a downward spiral of poverty,” said Bob Palmer, policy director of Housing Action Illinois. “And people who are more desperate and have fewer options and more obstacles to finding [housing], they sometimes wind up being poorer than they would otherwise.”

Tenants facing eviction are at a large disadvantage in court. According to a report by Housing Action Illinois and the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, only 12% of tenants are represented by attorneys, as opposed to 81% of landlords.

That’s a gap an online platform called Rentervention seeks to bridge.

Automated Assistance

Rentervention was started in 2017 as a simple chatbot platform to help renters understand their rights, said Conor Malloy, Rentervention project director.

As an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, Malloy used to represent landlords across the city in eviction cases. Many tenants, he said, were not aware of how legal proceedings worked, nor did they know their rights as renters.

“I would be evicting people in court—we’d be doing a trial—and then somebody would want to bring up the fact that the landlord wasn’t doing what they’re supposed to do,” Malloy said. “And then I would turn to them and say, ‘Okay, do you have a copy of the 14-day letter that you sent to your landlord?’ And they would say, ‘My what?’”

In order to flip the script on their landlords, tenants need to be aware of basic information that can help them resolve disputes, Malloy said.

Rentervention is a joint effort of the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing and the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois, and funded by the latter. While he wasn’t involved in the creation of the Rentervention platform, Malloy designed the Rentervention chatbot.

“What Rentervention can do is say [to a renter], ‘Hey, you got some issues inside your property? Well, I’ll help you identify which ones are protected by the law, and I’ll help you understand how this all works,’” Malloy said.

Tenants can access the chatbot on the website or via text message. The bot has the built-in functionality to help identify renters’ problems—from eviction to lockouts, to landlord harassment or issues getting a security deposit back—and spell out how they can exercise their rights in each situation.

First, a tenant tells Renny—the bright pink robot mascot of the service—what the problem is.

From there, the chatbot runs down a list of questions to determine whether the tenant is eligible for the service: Do they live in Chicago? Is their housing subsidized? How many units are in the building?

If they are determined to be eligible, Renny asks the renter to type their problem in a few words. It also provides a list of common scenarios like, “I do not have any heat, water, gas or plumbing,” or “My landlord locked me out.” Tenants then provide the chatbot with the necessary information to write a letter to their landlord using proper legal language. The bot then sends the letter by certified mail for free.

Complicated Cases

But the chatbot, being a piece of code, has limitations. For instance, it cannot always help renters who have a lack of English language proficiency.

So, the second arm of Rentervention is free legal assistance from a volunteer attorney. If Renny the chatbot determines it cannot assist in what the renter needs, it offers to send that tenant’s case on to a staff member.

Rentervention’s virtual clinic has more than 80 volunteer attorneys. For those whose cases have added complexity, Malloy said this service allows them to speak with an attorney over the phone to help prepare documents and draft letters.

Malloy said this service was designed around the idea of pop-up legal clinics, which offer limited-scope solutions to specific problems. But where these clinics require people to come to a physical location during specific hours, Rentervention offers the service over the phone.

By making a phone call to the landlord on the tenant’s behalf, the volunteer attorney “changes the power disparity between a landlord and a tenant,” Malloy said.

Looking Ahead

The virtual nature of the chatbot and the clinic meant Rentervention was well-equipped to tackle additional problems brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, the latest version of the chatbot was launched and has already served more than 20,000 users since then.

The user feedback received from the chatbot has been largely positive, Malloy said, but negative experiences often stem from the fact that Rentervention is a “targeted” service. It cannot help everyone.

For instance, those living in subsidized housing cannot use it, and currently, it is limited to renters within Chicago city limits. The chatbot can only be used via the internet or text message, which makes it inaccessible for those without connectivity. And while it can arm tenants with knowledge of their rights and connect them to brief legal assistance, Rentervention is not designed to do much more than that.

“This is trying to get people stabilized and give them back some power that they may have once lost,” Malloy said.

Where legal representation is required, Malloy said cases can be referred to the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, or one of the organization’s partners, for full scale representation.

Malloy said Rentervention is continuing to evolve, with the next big hurdle being accessibility. Upcoming iterations of the chatbot will include a Spanish-language bot and efforts to make the app more accessible to those with disabilities, like colorblindness.

Eventually, Malloy said, they want to adapt the bot so a renter can tell the program exactly what they need in natural language rather than using specific keywords.

The lawyers at Rentervention are also “bracing themselves” for when the current eviction moratorium ends, which has the potential to bring with it a flood of eviction cases.

In the end, tenants will not be protected solely by using the correct forms or knowing their rights. In many cases the landlord and tenant problems are indicative of something else: lack of affordable housing.

Sarah Duda, deputy director of Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University, said COVID-19 exacerbated existing housing problems. Many who experienced layoffs in March and April were already “housing-cost burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30% of their income in rent. Duda said this can make it difficult to afford food, medical bills, education and transportation.

A government-funded rental assistance program would help, Palmer said, but going forward, affordable housing needs to be a priority in addition to making renters aware of their rights.

“In general, we need more resources to help people pay their rent and build housing,” Palmer said. “Housing should be an entitlement in our society like health care should be.”