From her computer at the Latino Task Force Hub in the Excelsior, Nancy Hernandez opens a spreadsheet and sees a neighborhood awash in unpaid rent. Almost every Excelsior household listed owes thousands in back rent, and hopes to be rescued by the millions of federal rent-assistance dollars being funneled through state and local programs.
“Many of these families owe up to $23,000 and such,” Hernandez said. “They were maybe laid off in March, April or June [of 2020].” And the bills keep rolling in, especially affecting those who still remain jobless. “They owe more now than they did when they applied,” she said.
And the help has been slow to come. So far, only a fraction of those who need assistance have applied. Roughly 5,200 San Francisco households applied to the five-month-old state rent relief program, and more than 4,100 have applied to the two-month-old city program. Because San Franciscans can apply to both, there’s likely overlap.
Confusion, distrust, lackluster messaging and a tricky process have befuddled and discouraged applicants — so much so that tenant advocates are belatedly launching an “education campaign” to boost rent relief applications.
The submitted applications represent only a sliver of the total rent debt in San Francisco. The Budget and Legislative Analyst’s office compiled a report in June that estimated the city’s unpaid rent between $147 million and $355 million as of June, 2021, impacting 13,000 to 33,000 households.
Another widely used estimate from the National Equity Atlas suggests the city falls in the middle of the city’s analysis, with about 26,691 households in San Francisco behind on rent who owe an estimated $4,900 on average.
“The point is, there are a lot of people. It’s a big number even if you take the low number,” said Fred Brousseau, the Director of Policy Analysis at the Budget and Legislative Analyst’s office and the lead author of the June report.
The feds allotted California $5.2 billion in rent relief funds which it will distribute to counties or cities, depending on the size of the population, in two stages: San Francisco received its first round of approximately $51 million dollars, and $28.5 million will be administered by the state. In the fall, San Francisco will receive an additional $21 million in the second round, according to a spokesman for the state’s rent relief program.
So far, the state has paid out nearly $19 million to assist 1,700 households, with the average grant being $10,738.
The city program, which also uses federal dollars, has another $90 million. Grantees will get three months of back and foreward rent covered, for a total of six months. Additionally, the Board of Supervisors set aside $32 million in the budget to tackle rent relief.
But getting state money is not a cakewalk.
Though verified applicants will likely get all the state money requested, Hernandez said, qualifying for the state program proved difficult for several clients.
The spreadsheet, which encompasses client debt from the Excelsior Latino Task Force Hub, showed that, by late July, a total of $460,000 was requested funds from the state program. It’s not clear how much has been paid out. In the same period, the Excelsior Hub’s clientele submitted 150 applications to the local program, which asked for a total of $604,000. By late July, about $405,000 of that was cut in checks.
Among these is a household asking for as much as $27,000, Hernandez said.
Applying for rent relief has been daunting. And, while the process has gotten easier by eliminating certain requirements, tenant advocates said, all of the changes have confused and discouraged applicants.
Subtenants face the highest hurdles, Hernandez said. She mentioned the plight of several subtenants, who are waiting to get their state application approved.
“The state program does not recognize San Francisco’s housing situation, because many of the tenants who are in the situation are not on the lease,” Hernandez said. The city program, on the other hand, explicitly invites subtenants to apply.
Some subtenants didn’t want to contact the landlord to verify their residency, as the landlord didn’t necessarily know that they were living in the residence, multiple advocates told Mission Local.
Landlord participation used to be required for tenants to access the state rent relief funds. Though that’s no longer the case, landlord cooperation would “make things a hell of a lot faster,” said the state program spokesman.
In some cases, landlords dissuade tenants from applying to the state program because they fear possible repercussions from the state. For example, landlords may rent to tenants living in an illegal unit, and don’t want to get caught, advocates said.
Brenda Cordoba, who leads rent relief efforts for Bay Area Faith in Action, said about half of her clients have submitted successful applications to either program, but reluctant landlords remain an issue. “Some landlords just don’t want them to apply,” Cordoba said in Spanish.
As a workaround, tenant advocates are reaching out to landlords on clients’ behalf in instances of resistance or subtenant situations. Cordoba and Hernandez also steer applicants to the city’s program, which in their experience holds fewer barriers for subtenants.
More education needed
“Many do not know that the applications have been made easier to become eligible to qualify. So that’s the word that we’re sending out,” said Gen Fujioka, the advocacy coordinator for the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition, a group of over 20 tenant organizations that are spearheading the education campaign.
Advocates especially want applicants who couldn’t navigate the process before to try again.
“Many have tried and have been discouraged,” continued Fujioka. “I think there’s a fair amount of distrust and apprehension about applying to government programs.”
Fujioka said the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition launched texting campaigns to reach those without internet service, and disseminated flyers with information in multiple languages in the hope of a higher program turnout.
Simplified rent relief information will be deposited at city supervisors’ offices, union halls, and at San Francisco Unified School District buildings, Fujioka added. Those who require the assistance of community organizations to fill out applications will be referred to one nearest them.
And the need is imminent. While unemployment is gradually declining, some households find themselves buried in debt.
“It’s very painful, what’s happening to me and my sons. It’s sad,” said Juana, a San Francisco resident who accrued more than $20,000 in debt since the pandemic’s onset.
Fujioka hopes that will be addressed with the Anti-Displacement Coalition’s new campaign. “Our task is to provide clarity. There’s many questions unanswered, so that’s why we wanted to create a more dynamic way of communicating with tenants as time goes on.”