State housing office faced with a complaint of discrimination because of poorly managed rent relief

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Tenant attorneys hope the confusion in the state rent reduction program is resolved after it was discovered last week that rampant tenant allegations about problems with the distribution of state rent cuts are justified.

The complaint alleges that the program created barriers for disabled and non-English residents and delayed or excluded them from rental facilities that would protect them from eviction.

With the decision by the Department for Fair Employment and Housing last week, the Department will lead a mediation between the plaintiffs – a number of local tenant lawyers – and the Department for Housing and Community. The latter heads the state rent reduction program Housing is Key.

If sufficient resolutions are not taken, a lawsuit could be on the table.

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

The Ministry of Community and Housing cannot currently comment on the case, a spokesman said. The Ministry of Fair Employment and Housing is not commenting on open cases, a spokesman said.

Especially now that the state eviction moratorium expired on September 30th, it is crucial for tenants to file applications in order to avoid an eviction procedure. Otherwise, they can proceed without an eviction court if they cannot pay enough additional rent. On Monday, October 4, more than 4,000 new applications were submitted and thousands of new ones started, said Russ Heimerich, spokesman for Housing is Key.

But Tracy Douglas, a registered attorney at Bet Tzedek Legal Services who supported the lawsuit along with the Asian Law Caucus, said there were still problems.

Many of them revolve around language problems. Just a day before the September 30 eviction moratorium ended, the Chinese translations of the motions remained inaccurate, Hickey said.

While the website offers information in multiple languages, it seems to rely heavily on Google Translate which spits out confusing translations. In the early stages of the program, the translated version of the rental application website encouraged Chinese residents to “return to your country, applicants”. In the Vietnamese translation, the “Inhabitants” tab was incorrectly referred to as “Landlords”.

In addition, 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 shouldn’t happen, said Heimerich.

However, he added that applicants can also call the voice line and put through to a translator for help.

But there were also barriers on the language line. A Cantonese spokesperson called the Cantonese line in June 2021 and received an English spokesperson and no translator was available. According to the complaint, the alleged interpreters sometimes left the line for long periods of time, causing confusion and concern among callers.

“My landlord and I don’t speak English and we don’t use computers,” said an Asian Law Caucus press release quoting Mr. W., a Sino-American tenant in San Francisco. “I am 71 years old and my landlord is 92. It was extremely difficult to apply for rent allowance as there are no applications in our language that we can fill out at home and post.”

The complaint also states that the website’s design sometimes made it easy for disabled residents to keep track of them. Without a screen reader, a special tool to assist the visually impaired or blind, some applicants may have misread the application, the complaint states. This could potentially lead them to loop through the page “thinking the website links are broken and completely abandoning the application process”.

And leaving only five to 25 seconds to select options on the phone line is ignoring the 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 that were not available when the lawsuit was filed on June 25 continued to penalize low-income or low-tech residents. “I work a lot with seniors and a lot of them don’t have email and don’t know how to navigate the Internet,” said Douglas.

It is unclear when this will be resolved, but tenant advocates insist that this must be done as soon as possible in order to get money out of the door and restore confidence in public programs. “In many cases, people have decided, ‘this can’t be for me,’ and have already given up,” said Hickey. “I think these communities need to be reached and repaired.”


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