Local News  Knowledge base
Tenant agency focuses on legal plights and rights
By Katherine Sopranos
The Chicago Tribune (February 19, 1999)

Your Place recently sat down with Douglas Pensack, associate director of the Illinois Tenants Union, to discuss the agency's role, its concerns and its efforts to help Chicago-area tenants.

The Illinois Tenants Union is a private, nonprofit agency with a mission to help tenants to exercise their legal rights under city, village and state landlord-tenant laws, such as Chicago's Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance.

Q. When was ITU founded?

A. ITU was founded in 1988 by my brother, Michael Pensack, who's the executive director. It was founded because he was, and continues to be, a full-time activist assisting tenants.

Q. Why was ITU launched?

A. The biggest of the many imbalances between landlord and tenants is the imbalance of knowledge. Landlords have more resources to obtain information and assistance with legal problems or rights.

Generally speaking, landlords can afford lawyers and tenants can't. So, that imbalance means that tenants have a greater disadvantage and don't have the resources to fight it.

The void that ITU steps into is the void of knowledge and assistance to help tenants actually exercise their rights under the law in ways that are, hopefully, affordable for them.

Q. Describe ITU's business.

A. To assist tenants in exercising their rights under the law and to create greater equity in the landlord-tenant relationship. On another note, we're very interested in seeing a general improvement in the condition of (rental) property. One of our major programs is helping people legally make demands on their landlords for improved conditions as required by the building code.

Q. What is your role?

A. I do a lot of different things and have a lot of responsibilities, including communication with people who are members and meeting with them at our office or in their homes, depending on their situations.
I do building inspections, which is, in fact, from a personal point of view, what I enjoy the most. I enjoy being in the field and actually inspecting and observing properties.

Q. Describe ITU's membership.

A. We're not specifically, at this time, the kind of traditional membership organization that you think of like a labor union, despite the fact that we use the name of a union. It would be nice, and we'd eventually like to be structured that way. Our members are people who come to us for help. We sign them up as members at the time that we help them.

Q. ITU is a fee-based service?

A. Even though we actually end up giving a lot of free advice to people, just in the natural course of talking to people, the specific services that we provide are fee for service.

Q. What is ITU's structure?

A. My brother and I share executive responsibilities. His main focus is interacting with our attorneys and the attorneys who take cases from us. We have a full-time telemarketer and also a tester.

Q. Describe the telemarketer's jobs.

A. The telemarketer's job is to begin the process of figuring out who we can help and who we can't. There's no way in the world we can help everybody who has problems simply because we're not large enough to do it; No. 2, not everybody necessarily would be interested in our service or in one of our services. ... (The telemarketer) speaks to them, finds out the basic facts, and, if they're interested, begins to give them more information and, ultimately, if they're very interested, usually he would schedule a time (for them) to come in to see either Michael or myself for a more detailed interview.

Q. And the tester?

A. The tester is posing as a prospective tenant; therefore, the landlord welcomes him on the property to show him the property or to talk to him.
Testers find out specifically from their own first-hand knowledge what the landlords are doing. If they find out, as we do, in fact, in most cases, that the landlord is not consistently fulfilling his or her duty to mitigate, not showing and offering the property, not really trying to rerent the property as required, then (testers) have that experience they're able to document and even testify in court about it if they have to.

Q. You said you do building inspections.

A. As far as any inspections, we're there as the guest of the tenant. Just like anyone has the right to have their friends or relatives visit them, we're visiting. It just so happens we're visiting with a clipboard in our hands and looking at the building, but we're there not by ourselves without anyone's permission or knowledge.

Q. How are you involved with tenants' lawsuits?

A. We're not representing the tenant, per se, in lawsuits. If there's litigation with the tenants, they would be represented by legal counsel.

Q. What issues does ITU cover?

A. Breaking leases, maintenance, security deposits and evictions. We specialize because ... it's really difficult for a small number of people like ourselves to have the ability to really effectively deal with every single problem. Because we're not a city agency and because we are a private tenants group, we've chosen to organize ourselves in a way that is self-supporting, so we're not dependent on funding by any political or other body.
It means we have to focus our attention on those problems that we can help tenants with that they're also willing to put some money into solving.

Q. What would you say landlords violate the most?

A. Clearly, the most pervasive violation of the law is the violation of the building code.

Q. What are the most common complaints ITU hears?

A. There are numerous common and continuous violations of the landlord-tenant ordinance: theft of security deposit, a very common problem, and violations of the right of access.

Q. What do you want to see improved in Chicago's landlord-tenant ordinance?

A. The major problem is the lack of enforcement of the laws that already exist. Tenants have to be aware of their own rights and help enforce their own rights in order to have any.

ITU's job is to first make people aware of the fact that they do have some rights under the law. The second problem, then, is how do you exercise them. What helps is to actually exercise them in a way that actually results in something positive for you, which is why we get involved, if we get involved. We help (tenants) do it step by step, from beginning to end, until it's done, until they're in a better position, and they're in a protected legal position from point A to point B.

If you have any questions or would like more information, or to discuss your rights please contact us (773) 478-1133, email us, or use our online request form.

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