Miguel Mateo and other protesters hold red cut out hearts at the rally and ask for Covid-19 rent relief and Right to Recover fund assistance in front of City Hall. Photo by Annika Hom. Taken Feb. 12, 2021.

Tenant advocates hope the snarls in the state’s rent relief program will be resolved following the finding last week that rampant tenant allegations of problems in the distribution of state rent relief have merit. 

The complaint alleges that the program created barriers for disabled and non-English-speaking residents, and delayed or barred them from rent relief that would protect them from evictions. 

With last week’s decision by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the department will lead a mediation between the plaintiffs — a slew of local tenant advocates — and the Department of Housing and Community. The latter runs the state’s rent relief program, called Housing is Key. 

If sufficient resolutions aren’t made, a lawsuit could be on the table.

The purpose of filing this suit, says attorney Tiffany Hickey, was simple: Get the money to the people who need the money. “It’s really, really vital for people to apply and access that program,” said Hickey, a housing rights staff attorney with Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus. 

The Department of Community and Housing cannot comment on the case at this time, a spokesperson said. The Department of Fair Employment and Housing doesn’t comment on open cases, a spokesperson said. 

It is crucial for tenants to file applications to avoid eviction proceedings, especially now that the state eviction moratorium expired on Sept. 30. Otherwise, without one they can go to eviction court if they can’t pay enough back rent. On Monday, Oct. 4, more than 4,000 new applications had been submitted and thousands more new ones have been started, said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for Housing is Key.

But Tracy Douglas, a registered legal services attorney with Bet Tzedek Legal Services, which supported the complaint along with the Asian Law Caucus, said there are still ongoing problems. 

Many of these revolve around language issues. Just a day before the eviction moratorium ended on Sept. 30, the Chinese translations for the applications remained inaccurate, said Hickey. 

While the website offers information in multiple languages, it appears to rely heavily on Google Translate, which spits out perplexing translations. In the program’s early stages, the translated version of the rent application website told Chinese residents to “go back to your country, applicant.” The Vietnamese translation incorrectly labeled the “resident” tab as “landlord.”

Additionally, tenants said that, despite submitting an application in a foreign language, Housing is Key sent a follow-up email in English for the next step in the process.

That should not be happening, said Heimerich.

However, he added that applicants can also call the language line and patch through to a translator to get help.  

Even on the language line, however, there were barriers. A Cantonese speaker in June, 2021, called the Cantonese line and received an English speaker, and no translator was available. The complaint further alleged that interpreters sometimes left the line for periods of time, creating confusion and worry for callers.

“My landlord and I do not speak English and we do not use computers,” stated a press release from Asian Law Caucus that quoted Mr. W., a Chinese American tenant in San Francisco. “I am 71 and my landlord is 92. It has been extremely difficult to apply for rental assistance because there are no applications in our language that we can complete at home and mail.” 

The complaint also states that the website’s design sometimes gave disabled residents the run-around. Without screen readers, a special tool to aid the low-vision or blind, some applicants may have misread the application, the complaint said. This could potentially cause them to cycle through the page in a loop, and “think the website links are broken and abandon the application process entirely.” 

And allowing only five to 25 seconds to select options on the phone line ignores needs of deaf or hard-of-hearing residents, as well as those who need American Sign Language and a video interpreter, the complaint said. 

A lack of paper applications, which weren’t available when the complaint was filed June 25, further disadvantaged low-income or technology-lacking residents. “I work a lot with seniors, and many of them don’t have email, and don’t know how to navigate the internet,” Douglas said. 

It’s unclear when this will be resolved, but tenant advocates emphasize it must be done as soon as possible to get money out the door and to repair trust in public programs. “In a lot of cases, people have decided, ‘this must not be for me’ and have already given up,” Hickey said. “I think there needs to be outreach and repair done to these communities.”

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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  1. I turned app when first started program they denied my family because case worker told me she wasn’t trained all this extra B’s because have learning disability needed help application she stopped answering all calls emails I had anyone came contact try help until all paperwork messed up I turned in everything she asked for and then some even had landlord call talk her they never even contacted me just kept calling sending emails daily until one day used friends phone my case worker answered first ring told her was that’s when snapped me stop calling her that denied mtjs ago she can’t help stop calling I meet every require ment BECAUSE LEARN DISABILITY DENIED I FACT COUPLE PPL LIVE AREA COMETTING FRAUD BUT FAMILY HELPING THEM INSIDE WHY CANT MY FAMILY GET HELP SHAMED HAVING LEARNING Disability

  2. I know for a fact the people who are running the program are fraud. The case manager I had marked my case as non-responsive 2 days after we spoke on the phone and completely stopped answering my calls, emails or messages through the portal. They pick and choose who they want to help so I have no doubt those who can not speak or understand English and/or those with disabilities are being underserved. This is EDD all over again but worst because at least with EDD there were computers and machines, this program is human ran and discriminatory.

  3. I have been in a mess with these people since I first applied in April 2021 spent hours on the phone no one would help or could look at my application to help me. Only different answers every time I would get someone on the phone now I’m going to be evicted and don’t know what to do this program is negligent liars and need to be held accountable where’s is the money if it’s not being spent to pay peoples rent?!?

  4. I went through the entire application process which I began in June 2021 now it’s February 2022 and I do owe back rent!!! Now after gathering extensive paperwork I am being told I do not qualify because my landlords are my parents!! I am behind, rent is so past due next step is find another rental because I cannot afford rent!! Rent is rent and past due is past due!!! This program holds so much discriminatory factors that are just wrong!! I will not have a place for my 2 boys and me just because my landlord are my parents does not mean I don’t need to pay rent!! Newsome where are you when your programs fail?

  5. I am one of the ones who is on disability, who got Evicted. I didn’t have anywhere to go. I am under doctor Care . I have COPD, Asthma, Diabetes , High Blood Pressure. My Bathroom floor was never fixed. However, the The Landlord took me to Court. I subjected could I pay the money if full. The Judge Ask, him would he be willing to Notigoate with me and let me pay. He said No. He wanted me out of his property. I Lost my Livingroom set coffee table, and tables. Lamps. Bedroom set, dressers Chester drawer. Washer and Dryer Because, I did BELIEVE they would do next this away during the Pandemic and I am Sickly I used A Machine 4 times A Day for my breathing Treatments at Home. These. Programs has left me HOMELESS. I am sick of it all. Who is too help me now.

  6. It’s unfortunate that another state program to assist residents wasn’t fully vetted, just like EDD payments that many are still waiting for. The response is always to blame applicants, IT system etc.
    With Silicone valley and It startups you would think it would be easy solution.
    Hey Governor Newsome fix this problem…

  7. The most vulnerable members of our community are always the ones treated the worst. Very sad. The state’s rollout of this has been so terrible. So many families affected.