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A 'Discriminatory Barrier': California's Rent Relief Website Lacks Translations, Advocates Say

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A person accessing the 'Housing is Key' website.
More than 20 organizations that help tenants stay housed are saying the state’s Housing Is Key rent relief website isn't natively available in multiple languages, including Spanish and Cantonese.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Tens of thousands of tenants in San Francisco are eligible to apply for $2.6 billion in rent relief available in California, but many find it difficult — or even impossible — for one simple reason.

They can't read the application website.

More than 20 organizations that help tenants stay housed are saying the state’s Housing Is Key rent relief website isn't natively available in multiple languages, including Spanish and Cantonese. The advocates say it's a failure by state officials, and are calling for an overhaul to make the website more accessible for renters and landlords who are monolingual in a language other than English.

Shaw San Liu, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, said the people who could be shut out of the rent relief application process by these barriers are those who need it most — people in Latino and Asian communities who often work in restaurants, hotels and other industries that bore the brunt of the pandemic-induced economic crisis.

"This rent relief access is an early warning sign of how important it is for all levels of government to make sure these relief programs really are taking into consideration racial inequities and language access and cultural barriers," she said. "It’s a little bit shocking to have to have this conversation in 2021."

Organizations pushing to reform the website include the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition, Causa Justa Just Cause, the Chinese Progressive Association, Chinatown Community Development Center, Tenants Together and the Bill Sorro Housing Program.

They jointly wrote to the California Department of Housing and Community Development on April 13, saying the barriers to the state's application process "directly and indirectly discriminates against applicants who are not English proficient and the significant number of BIPOC households who lack reliable or consistent internet."

Karen Naungayan, a spokesperson for the California Department of Housing and Community Development, which runs the Housing Is Key website, said they recognized many of the group's concerns, which they said they had also identified internally.

“Work was already underway to address these concerns,” Naungayan said.

Those changes include providing paper applications in languages other than English for the first time and new language on the website encouraging people struggling with Google Translate to call in to the state for support. They’re also planning changes to the call-in center to include a welcome message in multiple languages.

California tenants owe between $400 million and $2 billion, according to different estimates.

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The rent relief comes via federal funding, with a framework passed by state lawmakers in March, and is aimed at keeping people housed during the pandemic.

As of March 15, landlords with low-income tenants who have fallen behind on rent because of the pandemic were able to apply for relief. They are eligible to receive up to 80% of all back rent between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021. Landlords must also agree to forgive the remaining 20% of the rent, and they cannot try to collect the unpaid rent in small claims court or use it to justify an eviction.

For the process to work, both landlords and tenants need to navigate the Housing Is Key website.

While the website does offer limited access in multiple languages, advocates say it's insufficiently integrated into the website.

Instead of offering sections written in native languages, the website relies on a Google Translate pulldown menu, which reads "select language" in English. You have to read English to find the translation button.

The application process, then, is rife with "English language walls" where Google Translate fails, and people applying for rent relief must know some English to proceed with their applications — like buttons that aren’t translated by Google because they are static JPEG images, or maps with pop-up text that aren’t translated by Google because of how they’re designed.

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Molly Goldberg, a coordinator with the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition, said, "We're happy to hear how our feedback may be motivating some change, and we'll continue to raise these issues until they're actually implemented."

But advocates said a number of concerns they raised are not part of the state's changes, which the coalition learned of only after the state made comments to KQED — and which the state did not bring to the organizations.

The biggest concern, Goldberg said, is the continued use of Google Translate. Using higher-quality human-translated web pages is "not a huge lift with a completely static site. But they haven't said they're planning to do that, so there'll still be a two-tiered system for people who want to access the system in a language other than English."

Rita Lui is a housing counselor at San Francisco's Chinatown Community Development Center. Lui's job is to help tenants with all of the issues they face every day, from navigating rent payment to dealing with landlords who won't fix a sink.

But now Lui, and three other housing counselors at CCDC, each spend five hours weekly helping tenants navigate the Housing Is Key website.

"It takes a lot of time," Lui told KQED. That's time she could be spending helping tenants with myriad other issues. She described the website as just plain confusing.

"Even for a housing counselor who reads English, it took us a while to understand the interface and the application," Lui said. "The application is very long."

The website is also difficult to navigate for older tenants who speak any language, the organizations' leaders allege, since there are numerous minor but impactful technological barriers for seniors who tend to be less technologically savvy.

And Lui can't print out applications for seniors who are less web-savvy to fill out themselves.

"One of my clients, even though she can read and speak English, opening an application requires you to register an email online. Even though she has an email, she feels pretty confused and helpless," Lui said.

While the state is now encouraging those struggling with the website to call in to a helpline, Lui said that process can be confusing, even frustrating.

"The menu is all in English," Lui said. The menu does say 'for English press one, or for Cantonese press two, for Spanish press three,' but it says those all in English. If you don’t understand English at all, you can't understand the word, you don’t understand when to press."

The state is in the process of updating the call-in line to include a welcome message in multiple languages, according to Naungayan, from the California Department of Housing and Community Development.

Lui said she also faced difficulties once she connected with a live, real human person to ask for help filling out the application. She decided to test the system, and pretend she didn't speak English. She asked for help in Cantonese, asking the operator for someone who speaks "zung-man" — essentially asking for someone who speaks Chinese, in either Cantonese or Mandarin.

"The operator hung up on me," Lui said.

When she called back and asked for "Chinese" in English, they found her an interpreter.

Should these accessibility issues be excused by the state’s having to put together a rent relief website in a tight time frame, amid a once-in-a-generation pandemic?

Advocates say no.

They point to Alameda County’s website for its own rent relief program. The site is multilingual, and, advocates say, it's easy to read, and easy to print, and they urge the state to do more to emulate it.

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