On Friday afternoon, faith leaders, educators, students, and community organizers stood in front of City Hall with red balloons and giant red cut-out hearts in an act meant to spur San Francisco to aid immigrants who are struggling with rent during the pandemic.
The group of more than three dozen protesters addressed District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, and representatives of District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton and District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston, who attended. They issued demands, including eliminating the requirement to pay back 25 percent of back rent and full rent when the moratorium ends; to permanently fund the Right to Recover fund, which financially supports covid-positive essential workers without access to paid sick leave; and to change the city’s rent-relief application requirements to only request ID and landlord-related documents to diminish undocumented immigrants’ fear of retaliation over their status.
The city’s current rent-relief assistance program, which is funded through private donations to Give2SF, has been able to help at least 1,443 out of the 9,000 applicants to tap into $5.8 million. On average, applicants receive about $4,000 according to the City Controller’s office. However, protesters like Rev. John Kirkley, of St. James Episcopal Church, argued that this has been insufficient, especially for low-income immigrant families who have either lost income or are working high-risk front-line jobs.
Immigrants are “suffering not only in terms of illness or death, but in economic insecurity, job loss and increasing rent debt,” Kirkley said. “We are concerned especially that many of our most vulnerable neighbors will be at risk of homelessness due to eviction.”
Sonia Alvarenga choked up when she detailed her story at the rally. She’s unemployed, and owes rent dating back to April 2020. She was one of the recipients of the rental assistance program, and said in order to receive it, she had to promise to pay full Feb. 2021 rent and 25 percent of all existing back rent. She was supposed to be given four months worth of rent, but she said on Friday that she will be only given two.
“I had no other option but to sign,” she said in Spanish, noting she’s worried about how she’ll pay off the rest in the future. She said she pays taxes, but due to her immigration status she does not qualify for government assistance like stimulus checks or federal unemployment. “I’m looking, but right now I have no job.”
Alvarenga also asked that the city improve the process, if the program reopens. She said she had two weeks to turn in several documents, including a signature from her landlord, which was difficult since she had no printer. Luckily, she is a member of the main group organizing the rally, Faith and Action Bay Area, who let her use its printer.
“It makes me wonder about those who don’t have access, or who can’t read,” Alvarenga said. “What happens to them?”
Other funds that San Franciscans have relied on for economic assistance during covid have also dried up in the past. Right to Recover, which launched in June, 2020, and promised two weeks’ worth of minimum wage ($1,285) for covid-positive essential workers who had no access to sick leave, ran out of funds in August, 2020, before receiving another influx of money to keep it going. Local organizers worried it would run out again this past winter, but thanks to another $6 million donation in mid-January, it has lived on. Since then, the program has committed $10.9 million in total relief and assisted 3,200 San Franciscans, according to the mayor’s office.
These funds would’ve come in handy for Miguel Mateo, a District 9 resident and member of Faith in Action, who said he contracted covid in January. He’s a senior who lost his job during the pandemic, and he said the lack of resources during his illness exacerbated his pre-existing struggles to make rent.
“Do what is morally correct,” Mateo said in Spanish. “Stand in our shoes. Don’t just hear us out. Take action.”
Educators like Board of Education president Gabriela López and faculty from San Francisco International High School said that they saw how rent relief affected students’ learning.
“If a child has no access to food, that affects their learning,” López said. “If they have no access to rent relief, that affects their learning.”
Antoine Lagarde, a teacher at International High, recalled a teleconference with a student in which she expressed interest in leaving school to get a job and help her dad with rent. Her father cried, Legarde said, saying how he didn’t want his daughter to forgo her education and have to clean toilets just to make ends meet. But some are. “Students are dropping out,” Lagarde said.
At the end of the rally, Ronen said she would use her position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Appropriations Committee to work with Walton and Supervisor Matt Haney on shifting part of a recently announced $125 million budget surplus into housing stabilization and Right to Recover funds.
“We’re going to work hard to fight and follow your demands,” Ronen said.