Tenant advocates hope the grumblings in the state’s rent relief program will be resolved after it was discovered last week that widespread claims by tenants about problems in the distribution of state rent relief are meritorious.
The complaint alleges the program created barriers for disabled and non-English residents, and delayed or barred rent relief that would protect them from evictions.
With the decision last week from the Fair Employment and Housing Department, the department will mediate between the plaintiffs – a large number of local tenant advocates – and the Housing and Community Department. The latter manages the state’s rent relief program, Housing is Key.
If sufficient resolutions are not taken, a lawsuit could be on the table.
The purpose of filing this complaint, says lawyer Tiffany Hickey, was simple: get the money back to the people who need it. “It’s really, really vital that people apply and access this program,” said Hickey, a housing rights staff lawyer with the Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus.
The Community and Housing Ministry cannot comment on the case at this time, a spokesperson said. The Fair Employment and Housing Department does not comment on open cases, a spokesperson said.
It is crucial that tenants file applications to avoid eviction proceedings, especially now that the state’s moratorium on evictions expired on September 30. Otherwise, without it, they can go to eviction court if they cannot pay enough rent. As of Monday, October 4, more than 4,000 new applications were submitted and thousands of new ones were launched, said Russ Heimerich, spokesperson for Housing is Key.
But Tracy Douglas, a legal services attorney registered with Bet Tzedek Legal Services, who supported the complaint with the Asian Law Caucus, said there were still issues going on.
Many of them revolve around language issues. Just a day before the expulsion moratorium ended on September 30, Chinese translations of the requests remained inaccurate, Hickey said.
Although the website offers information in multiple languages, it seems to rely heavily on Google Translate, which spits out confusing translations. At the start of the program, the translated version of the rent application website asked Chinese residents to “return to your country, applicant”. The Vietnamese translation incorrectly labeled the “resident” tab as “owner”.
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.
This shouldn’t happen, Heimerich said.
However, he added that applicants can also call the language line and contact a translator for assistance.
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 a period of time, creating confusion and concern for callers.
“My landlord and I don’t speak English and we don’t use computers,” said an Asian Law Caucus press release that quoted Mr. W, a Chinese-American tenant in San Francisco. “I am 71 years old and my landlord is 92. It was extremely difficult to apply for rental assistance as there are no requests in our language that we can complete at home and in the mail. .
The complaint also states that the design of the website at times gave residents with disabilities the opportunity to move around. Without screen readers, a special tool to help the visually impaired or blind, some applicants may have misread the application, according to the complaint. This could potentially cause them to loop through the page and “think the website links are broken and abandon the application process altogether.”
And allowing just five to 25 seconds to select options on the phone line ignores the needs of residents who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as those who need American Sign Language and a video interpreter, according to the complaint.
The lack of paper requests, which were not available when the complaint was filed on June 25, has further disadvantaged low-income or tech-deprived residents. “I work with older people a lot, and a lot of them don’t have email and don’t know how to browse the Internet,” said Douglas.
It’s unclear when this issue will be resolved, but tenant advocates stress it needs to be done as soon as possible to get money and restore confidence in public programs. “In a lot of cases people have decided ‘this doesn’t have to be for me’ and have already given up,” Hickey said. “I think we need to do awareness and reparations to these communities.”