Advocates say tenants living in the most precarious circumstances – limited English-speaking immigrants, not holding traditional leases or facing digital barriers – are not applying for the assistance they anticipated.
Sarah Truhaft, vice president of research at PolicyLink, said: “Everything shows you how it is people, who were already more vulnerable to the health and economic impacts of the pandemic and the past burden of systemic racism and exclusion, who have been excluded from the program.” being put out.” A nonprofit tracking data on tenants at risk of eviction.
In June, a coalition of tenant advocacy groups including the Asian Law Caucus, Asian American Advancing Justice-Los Angeles and Bette Tzedek filed a complaint with the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleging language and disability discrimination in the state’s rental assistance program. Of.
The complaint, which is now under arbitration, pointed to several problems: non-English-speaking applicants would have to navigate various English-only pages before finding an application portal in their language; Poor translation from excessive reliance on Google Translate; and the difference between the number of applications received by non-English speakers and the state’s demographics.
Also in June, the state made several changes to its application to make it easier for these tenants, including dropping many documentation requirements and having their web pages professionally translated – previously only in English and Spanish – into Vietnamese. , in Chinese, Korean and Tagalog. .
The California Department of Housing and Community Development says it has spent more than $1 million on ads trying to reach Asian-language speakers, and has signed contracts with 144 local organizations to work on the grassroots level. We work with over 100 partners.
But the state’s most recent numbers actually show a drop in applications from non-English speakers.
In June, 82% of applicants marked English as their primary language, according to data shared by the Department of Housing with CalMatters.
By 26 September, that number had risen to 86%. The number of completed applications during that period increased from 54,500 to 226,000, with applicants who reported primarily speaking Chinese by 1.5% to 1%, and Spanish-speaking applicants by 13%. fell to 11%.
“It’s actually worse now,” said Tiffany Hickey, staff attorney for the Asian Law Caucus who worked on the complaint.
Equity in rent relief is difficult to measure, mostly due to paucity of data. The closest available comparison may be the language spoken by renters in California, who make less than $50,000 a year, according to Treuhaft.
Read more: Rent aid sluggish in California, plagued by bureaucratic complaints
Those 2019 census numbers point to a wide gap. For example, only 50% of low-income renters reported speaking English at home. About one-third of them reported speaking Spanish, compared to 11% of program applicants. Chinese and Vietnamese speakers were underrepresented by a factor of three and Korean speakers by a factor of two.
However, the state housing department underestimated those discrepancies. It said that like any question on a survey, primary language is subjective. An application can be filled out by a support worker or a family member whose primary language is English, when the tenant can speak Korean. Plus, the department points out, only about half of applicants go through the state, while the rest apply through local programs with varying income and need-based criteria.
The agency has so far declined various public records requests for data regarding wait times for rent relief payments or success rates for applications.
The department’s deputy director, Geoffrey Ross, said the data was not tracked in a format that could be shared, and said the average turnaround time for all applicants was four weeks. He also said that no eligible applicants have been rejected, so the data will not differ on the basis of tenant’s language or caste only. Undocumented immigrants are eligible.
Instead, the department says it’s focusing on income to make sure it’s helping tenants in need. And currently, 83% of applicants earn less than 30% of the area’s median income, while the program’s cutoff is 80% of the region’s median income.
“So we’re reaching very deep into the pool in need,” Ross said.
In total, the state says it has approved about 61,000 applications and paid $719 million out of the $2.6 billion it is managing in federal rent relief funds.
language barriers persist
Phuong Wo, a 25-year-old program director at the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, was phone banking in mid-August to block a recall against Gov. Gavin Newsom, when she asked one of her clients if they knew the state had money. Is. Help refund the rent.
The answer was no. And most of his other customers said the same thing. So Vo did its bit to help inform customers about rent relief, which she says is vital to their economic survival — but wasn’t designed with them in mind.
“We do it with our other duties just because there’s no one else,” she told CalMatters.
She asked about 50 customers, she said half had already taken other types of loans to pay rent. (While the state pays only one landlord with outstanding rent, renters can still apply for further rent under the state program.)
The other 25 people she helped were unaware of the program, save for one, who had received an email about the program in English, but was unable to make it through the application. Can someone who speaks only Vietnamese fill out the application themselves? “Not at all,” she said.
While the Rent Relief Information page on the State Housing Department website has been commercially translated, the application portal is still translated using Google, which may be accurate. For example, the Vietnamese word for “save” on the application is commonly used when talking about saving a life as opposed to a document, Vo said. Similarly, the Chinese application translates “save” to “protect” according to Hickey.
Vo said she prefers to fill out her customers’ applications in English.
Ross said the application’s translation software is not under the agency’s direct control because it is run by a private contractor whose recent agreement with the state has more than doubled its value.
People with sensory disabilities are also excluded because accessibility was thought through later in the design of the application, according to Disability Rights California staff attorney Zeenat Hassan. She says the website is not optimized for screen readers to be used by blind or visually impaired people. The hotline hangs for customers after 20 seconds of silence, a problem for the hearing impaired who use a US sign language interpreter.
“It is very disappointing to ignore these issues, because these are the people at the core of who the state housing department should serve,” Hassan said.
However, the biggest challenge facing evictions has been calls from people who do not know that help is available.
In census data TreuHaft is tracking, 56% of California renters on payment said they had not applied for rent relief. However, these tenants also include people above the income threshold who may not be eligible, according to Russ Heimmerich, a spokesman for the Department of Housing.
But the data raises an important question: is the application bothering people? Or are some groups underrepresented because they don’t know that aid exists?
“It’s really important to think about where the logjam is really happening,” said Vincent Reina, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, who is examining applications coming to the state to determine how evenly the money is distributed. He said that most of these questions remain unanswered.
Most customers have helped since mid-August, yet haven’t heard back on their applications. They fear the delay is due to their unconventional accommodations, such as renting a room without a lease.
While applicants can only check a box that they qualify for relief, they will still need to upload a series of documents, including pay stubs, tax forms and rental agreements, to proceed through the application process. , which many of Vo’s clients are struggling to provide. “I wish they trusted the people they said they would,” she said.
Ross said most applicants successfully apply with only one or two documents, and are being treated the same as any other applicant without traditional documentation.
What if the landlord doesn’t sign up?
Sandra Garcia, 65, who lives with her son and his family in an unincorporated community near Porterville in Tulare County, told CalMatters she’s about $3,000 behind on rent.
She said she tried to apply for rent relief last April, but a case manager at a local nonprofit told her that without pay stubs to prove her loss of income, she could not qualify. will be unable. Garcia explained that she had been fired from her job as a farm worker—”the oldest people were let go,” she said in Spanish—so she had no pay stubs.
The state program allows tenants to claim a loss of income without documentation, but Garcia said she wasn’t aware of it because she gets her news primarily through Facebook, and none of her circles know about it. Doesn’t post about.
“I had heard something about it on television, but I didn’t know there was still money available, and I didn’t know where to look,” she told CalMatters.
In addition, Garcia said, many landlords in rural towns like him are struggling to survive.
“They’re just as poor as us,” she said. “They don’t want to end up in court if they’re sued. And they don’t want to waste their time, either, with something that isn’t even going to help.”
Advocates worry that tenants whose landlords do not participate in the rent relief program will be left out in the application process. However, Ross said they only have to wait an additional five days, during which the state tries to contact the landlord.
“We know that there are a lot of habitats that are operating in the shadows,” he said. “We know that some landlords will not participate because they are concerned about it. Again, we have to wait five days, they will not participate, we have a qualified application from the tenant, we can do that.
But advocates, including Armando Valdez, director of the Community Center for Arts and Technology in Fresno, insist the state is not laying the groundwork to reach those most vulnerable to evictions.
“It’s easy to say, ‘We have relief money’, but who are you targeting?” Valdez, whose group serves mostly rural communities in the Central Valley. “We ask, ‘Do you have staff to preach to communities in need?’ And the state will tell you, ‘All they have to do is call us. All they have to do is get online.’ “