When the Chinatown Community Development Center’s clients apply for rental assistance on the state’s website, a button that reads “Returning Applicant” in English, becomes “回國申請人,” in Google Translate, or “go back to your country applicant,” said Rita Lui, a housing counselor.
“This is ridiculous and unacceptable,” Lui said at a press conference Tuesday.
Lui and others in the San Francisco Anti Displacement Coalition called for an overhaul of the state’s rent relief program that has been taking applications since March 15.
Among the other cited complaints: no non-English paper applications, a deeply flawed mobile format, inconsistently user-friendly layouts and excessive required documentation.
“Some of these issues are so elementary that it’s a little shocking to have to be in a press event to flag that this is a problem,” said Shaw San Liu, the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco. “Too often, we’ve seen that these programs have been exclusive or difficult to access for the people most impacted.”
The challenges put residents with limited digital access, such as those with phones but no computers, non-English speakers, seniors and immigrants, at a disadvantage.
“We demand that the state should immediately remove its digital walls and commit to transition of its entire website that is low or no barrier,” said Theresa Imperial, a member of the city’s Planning Commission and the executive director of the Bill Sorro Housing Program, as she read from a letter sent to the state demanding changes to the application process.
It was signed by over 20 local organizations, including the San Francisco Eviction Defense Collaborative, San Francisco Tenants Union, Affordable Housing Alliance and Dolores Streets Community Services.
Russ Heimerich, the deputy secretary of communications for California’s Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, said in a telephone interview that the state has been aware of these issues, and solutions are already in the works.
“We’ve known for a long time that using the Google translation on the website has been inadequate,” Heimerich said. “What we’ve been doing, to be honest, is focusing on getting the portal up and starting to accept applications.”
Heimerich did say that the housing agency was forced to “build the airplane while we’re flying it,” because of the time time constraints set by Senate Bill 91, the legislation that created the relief program. It was signed on January 29, and set a deadline of March 15 for the state to begin accepting applications.
In the 29 days since the program launched, Heimerich said the agency has focused on working out flaws on the site, setting up a dedicated phone line to assist applicants and securing the program against distributing funds to deceased residents, currently incarcerated residents, and those attempting to apply in multiple counties.
The housing agency also commissioned professionally translated applications over the past two weeks for both print and online versions in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Korean, Brazilian Portuguese and Russian within a week, Heimerich said.
But housing advocates say fixing the application process is about more than just language barriers.
“When you apply, they ask for so much paperwork, it seems like they don’t want to give out the funds,” said Luz Rodriguez, a member of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, who helps tenants fill out applications.
Rodriguez said immigrant tenants also struggle to provide lease agreements, as many are renting without formal written contracts. The same issue applies to providing pay stubs, as many are paid in cash. Heimerich said applicants can sign a note with their landlords attesting to their arrangement, though those are accepted on a case-by-case basis.
Heimerich said tenant demographic data suggested the program was reaching its intended residents.
“Eighty percent of the tenants who have applied are at or below 30 percent of AMI,” Heimerich said. “So we’re reaching the people we need to reach for this, but again we can always do better.
Though the organizers of today’s event said they tried to reach out to the state multiple times, Heimerich said their letter was the first correspondence he was aware of.
“We invited them to join us in a call via Zoom this Thursday to discuss their concerns and listen to their suggested remedies,” Heimerich said.
Residents seeking help with the rental assistance application can call the state’s help number at 833-430-2122 or reach out to one of the local partners.