Starting Friday, San Francisco residents can apply for a new program that provides up to six months of rent assistance, Mayor London Breed announced this week. And, while tenants groups say this is a great start, demand is so huge that thousands of needy residents are unlikely to get access.
The $90 million pot has been established just weeks before the nine-month-old state eviction moratorium expires on July 1. Although local leaders are seeking to extend it, a massive assistance program will be needed . The mayor’s Emergency Rental Assistance program will target the most vulnerable and those most susceptible to homelessness, criteria that will be determined through an “evidence-based screening tool” that weighs factors like past homelessness and income level.
But, at best, that pot of money will cover half of the city’s rental debt. At worst, it will cover less than one-third, according to estimates in an October report provided to the Board of Supervisors.
The October report by the Budget and Legislative Analyst’s office put the rent debt in San Francisco between $135 million and $332 million. In the seven months since then, it has likely grown to between $200 million and $500 million.
Breed said in a May 24 statement that the goal of rent relief is to prevent evictions. “It’s absolutely crucial that we keep people in their homes, and this funding will help ensure that happens.”
Yet tenant groups, while appreciative, are unconvinced, saying that other pandemic rent relief initiatives failed to meet the overwhelming need. They pointed to the city’s Give2SF Housing Stabilization Program, the state’s rent relief program, and the already precarious housing situation of many before the pandemic.
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“There will be people who need this but won’t get it,” said Molly Goldberg, a tenants’ rights organizer with San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition and a Mission resident. “We don’t have enough money committed, even if it sounds like a large amount.”
Others are nervous about the time frame. The city site advertising the program said it may take a few weeks to process applications, though the July 1 eviction date is just around the corner.
An email from the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development to Mission Local said that it is “committed to evaluating applications and distributing funds as expediently as possible.”
The $90 million will be distributed in three phases. Beginning on May 28, the city is prepped to disburse $26.2 million, which was allocated from the U.S. Treasury. The American Rescue Plan promises another $37 million in federal funds for a second round of disbursement. An additional $30 million more was directed to San Franciscans from the feds as well, and can be accessed through housingiskey.com.
But tenants organizers and other activists remain skeptical, and referred to past state and city rent relief programs as having a precedent of being “inaccessible” to many in need.
Volunteers from Faith in Action Bay Area, a network of local religious groups, for months have advocated for a smoother process and more funding to these programs after witnessing thousands of applicants who never got a response.
Brenda Cordoba, an organizer with Faith in Action, questioned how this new emergency program will address barriers such as language and tech disparities that other relief programs have underscored.
Cordoba believes there are obstacles already in place with the new emergency program. The application can only be submitted online, though community groups are available in person or by phone to help. Still, Cordoba said residents without technology shouldn’t have to jump through extra hoops. To her, flashing the dollar signs embedded in the program draws attention away from some of the accessibility issues within it.
“This is a distraction,” Cordoba said of the $90 million in Spanish. “A lot of people aren’t going to see any of it.”
And the need is large. Already, about 9,000 people have applied for the city’s Housing and Stabilization Program, which offered rent relief for low-income residents who took a financial hit in the pandemic. Ultimately, about 1,400 received funds.
And, if the approximately 7,000 applicants who missed out are interested in this new program, they have to apply again on Friday. Since this program is funded by the federal government, a new system is needed to process it, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development said in an email. Cordoba views this as unfair.
“You’re in one line, now here’s another line. How is it possible [the city] doesn’t call these people back, or give them answers? They have a database with these people’s information,” Cordoba said. “Families are stressed.”
On the other hand, the community partners chosen by the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community and Development to help run the program said that it’s much-needed money going into peoples’ pockets. Dolores Street Community Services and the Native American Health Center, two based in the Mission, are optimistic about this program’s impact.
“Covid-19 has exacerbated the inequities our clients face, and the pandemic has disproportionately impacted Native communities around the country,” said Natalie Aguilera, Chief Administrative Officer of the Native American Health Center in a statement.
Residents with up to 80 percent of the city’s area median income can apply — which for one person is $102,450 and $146,350 for a family of four, according to the 2021 state income limits — though priority goes to those making 50 or 30 percent of the average median income. The application officially opens on Friday, with multilingual options.
To apply, one needs to verify proof of identity, income, residence, and rent owed.
In the meantime, local tenants groups are gearing up to educate community members about their options ahead of time.
Diana Flores, director of community engagement and organizing programs at Dolores Street Community Services said in a statement, “The local program is an opportunity to get it right. We are hopeful that by designing a low barrier application process we can be responsive and adaptive to those most in need.”
And, for those who may not receive funds, Goldberg is reminding clients that they still have tenants’ rights. And, she and others are looking for “short-term solutions,” like possibly gathering funds from Proposition I and introducing legislation to extend the eviction moratorium.
Even then, the rent crisis will be far from over.
“Even if we have more time, we do not currently have enough money to address the need,” Goldberg said. “We will need more and longer and comprehensive solutions to deal with this debt.”