As the coronavirus lockdown orders came last March, Maria Quiroz lost her jobs at a restaurant and a hotel. To pay rent, the 48-year-old dipped into her modest savings and took advances from her nephew, with whom she shared a small room in the Mission District.
Like many of the thousands of low-income Latinx residents who lost jobs as the economy shut down last year, she felt “powerless.” But she applied last spring for rental assistance through the Give2SF program, a donation-based city fund that set aside $6.4 million for tenants like Quiroz who could not make rent and feared spiraling into debt.
All told, some 9,000 residents applied for rental assistance through the Give2SF program, according to an April 12 Controller’s report, but only 1,443 received help. Quiroz was among the approximately 7,557 who never saw a dime.
“I applied and nothing, nothing, nothing,” she said in an interview Thursday. “And now, they’re saying I have to apply again.”
Indeed, as the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development rolls out a new rental assistance program that seeks to offer $26.2 million using federal money, the thousands of residents who were skipped over in the city’s previous rental assistance program will now have to reapply and cast their lots yet again.
This is not a trifling matter. Organizers say that applicants, many of them undocumented immigrants, had to relinquish personal information such as their addresses, countries of origin, and income — and were wary of giving that data to the government. They did so with faith that the city would help. But the vast majority never received even a phone call, advocates say, and now these vulnerable tenants are again being asked to trust the system that failed them.
“It is unfortunate that this is the case, but as you know, the last iteration of the rental assistance was stood up quickly to meet the need, had limited funds, and limited resources,” wrote Max Barns, a mayor’s office spokesman, in an email. “Those funds prioritized the most vulnerable households, and were distributed to them – it was never first come, first serve.”
Barns confirmed that the more than 7,500 low-income renters who applied and were passed over before will have to go through the same process again: “The applications from Give2SF are no longer valid, as the program launching next month will be funded by an entirely new source of money.”
Advocates are crying foul. Members of the group Faith in Action, a network of religious congregations and community organizations, argue that having thousands of vulnerable residents get in line again is unfair and abandons the people who have been waiting for help for a year.
“They’ve waited and waited and waited, and now they say that line doesn’t exist anymore, you have to line up again,” said Lorena Melgarejo, the executive director of Faith in Action. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been waiting.”
With the state’s eviction moratorium slated to end on June 30, Melgarejo said, “people are desperate.”
“Why are we exacerbating the desperation with failed systems like this?” she added. “We’re such a rich city.”
Matt Alexander, an organizer with Faith in Action and an elected member of San Francisco Board of Education, said that staff at one San Francisco Unified School District school spent “countless hours” helping 65 families fill out Give2SF applications. Only 11 of those families received assistance, he said.
“Now we’re being told there’s a whole new program with a different application, and we still don’t know if there will be enough funding for everyone,” he said. “Families are so afraid of being evicted right now.”
The pandemic has indeed left tenants hanging by a thread, and the debts they owe to their landlords are building. San Francisco tenants collectively owed somewhere between $122 million and $294.3 to their landlords going into 2021, according to an October Budget and Legislative Analyst report. Some tenant lawyers are even advising desperate tenants to go into bankruptcy to avoid spiraling further into debt.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen is aware of the situation. “I’ve had multiple conversations with MOHCD leadership to try to work through this,” she said in a statement. “It is completely unfair that the same people who have suffered the most during this pandemic are being asked to clear additional hurdles to get the rent relief they need.”
Thankfully, Quiroz is only indebted to her nephew for fronting the rent, and not a landlord who might take her to court. But she still owes him $4,000, and she doesn’t want to have to keep relying on him.
“It’s not just me — there are a lot of people who feel powerless,” Quiroz said. “They know there are 7,600 of us waiting — and frankly, we feel cheated.”
Faith in Action will be holding a sit-in at the MOHCD office at 1 Van Ness Ave. on Friday at 3 p.m.