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.”