A malfunctioning speaker and gusting wind did not silence a neighborhood rally for rent relief in Garfield Park Thursday evening. The message was still loud and clear: “We are not going to allow any more evictions,” declared facilitator and Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco (HRCSF) organizer Maria Jandres in Spanish. “We are not going to let our community be punished because they lost their jobs”.
The bilingual rally’s focal point was local resident Elena Cruz’s fight for rent relief. Cruz lost her job when the pandemic hit in March, 2020, and remains unemployed. She uses her savings to pay part of her rent and housing costs, and has updated her landlord on her efforts to get rent relief, a promise that has been delayed for many.
Cruz’s apartment has been a home for her and her family, including a 16-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son, for 18 years. Addressing the Housing Rights Committee tenant association’s members, and others gathered in the park where her children played while growing up, Cruz reflected on their nearly two decades in the neighborhood.
“Inside, my soul is torn, my heart is extremely sad. It is very difficult for me, as for my family, to find ourselves in this situation,” she said. “I don’t want to go, because it’s my home.”
Cruz submitted an application for California Covid-19 Rent Relief in April, and for a San Francisco program in July, to cover back and future rent. She still owes over $20,000 in rent, and no relief funds have been issued.
Cruz also alleges harassment by her landlord who, despite regular communication from Cruz about pending rent relief, continues to send eviction notices and ignores Cruz’s communications. Copies of correspondence between Cruz and her landlord were provided at the rally, but the landlord could not be reached for comment.
A petition was also circulated at the rally, seeking 30 signatures to urge Cruz’s landlord to end harassment and cooperate with her requests to claim rent relief. Some 50 people attended the rally, and 40 signed the petition.
“I feel powerless, because I cannot speak the same language [as my landlord]” said Cruz in Spanish, explaining that the HRCSF’s Southeast Tenant’s Association (SETA) helped her and other residents communicate with their landlords and reassured her of her rights, including drafting an English version of the petition letter. “I have found a lot of relief and a lot of strength in the association.”
In addition to alleged harassment by landlords and possible eviction, Cruz and other residents face the added stress of “shadow debt,” or money borrowed to pay rent and other living expenses, advocates said. With eviction protection funds in limbo and the eviction moratorium about to expire, Cruz and residents like her wonder what will happen if relief program promises come up short.
Meanwhile, the Southeast Tenant’s Association is mobilizing to support renters, raise awareness of renters’ rights, and prevent self-evictions, which is when a tenant elects to leave their home without understanding their rights and ability to apply for rent relief.
Maria Zamudio, the organizing director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, explained that Thursday was an important time to hold the rally, as federal unemployment benefits through the CARES Act and the eviction moratorium expire September 4 and 30, respectively. “We want to ensure the moratorium continues,” she said. “[Covid-19] is still raging, and people still need unemployment.”
Maria Jandres, an organizer with the Southeast group, underlined the importance of unity and neighborly support. “We’re demanding our elected officials to support our communities,” she said in English and Spanish. “We are showing that we have community, we are showing that [tenants] are not alone”.