Housing Rights Advocates File Complaint Detailing Language and Disability Discrimination in CA’s Emergency Rent Assistance Program

Discriminatory Barriers Are Blocking Thousands of Seniors, Immigrants, and People with Disabilities from Applying for Emergency Rent Assistance

[LOS ANGELES, CA] — With few California applicants having received rent relief help from the state and millions behind on rent, housing rights and community advocates have filed a complaint calling on the CA Department of Fair Employment and Housing to investigate and remove discriminatory barriers that have blocked people with disabilities and limited English proficiency from applying for emergency assistance. 

The complaint details how the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), which administers California’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), has repeatedly failed to provide meaningful language and disability access in compliance with federal and state civil rights mandates. The complaint was filed by Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, and Bet Tzedek on behalf of the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition (SFADC). Disability Rights California advised on the disability discrimination claims, and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles advised on the language access claims.

“California has approved over $5 billion in rent relief to help families who are struggling to make ends meet. Yet, that funding and a September 30 eviction moratorium extension do little to stop widespread devastation if people with disabilities, people who don’t speak English, or people without internet access can’t apply for assistance,” said Tiffany Hickey, housing rights staff attorney with Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus. “Hundreds of thousands of California families need easily accessible rent relief now to stay in their homes – no exceptions.” 

At different points this spring, the assistance website’s Chinese translations said “Go back to your country, applicant” when people tried to re-enter their online application and the Vietnamese translation incorrectly renamed the “tenant” button as “landlord,” further confusing potential applicants who are already navigating multiple local and state programs that have different rules and procedures. In April, community leaders sent a letter to HCD highlighting dozens of elements of the state’s web application process that effectively exclude people without adequate internet access and/or English language proficiency from applying for rent relief. 

“My landlord and I do not speak English and we do not use computers,” said Mr. W, a Chinese American tenant in San Francisco, through a translator. “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.” 

While HCD has made some improvements, critical barriers remain. The application is only available in non-English languages though Google translate, which includes serious inaccuracies, grammatical mistakes, and tones that can be read as offensive or childish at best. The informational website still has English-only landing pages and navigation, and all applicants must have an email address and internet connection to apply. HCD also failed to construct a website compatible with screen readers, a type of assistive device used by people who are blind or have low vision. The assistance program’s reliance on an automated phone tree creates accessibility barriers for people with cognitive disabilities or who are deaf/hard of hearing and need to place the call using a videophone and ASL interpreter or who do not speak English.

“Since April, I have been working with monolingual Spanish-speaking clients to apply for rent assistance. My clients are older, without computer skills to access the online application,” said Tracy Douglas, registered legal services attorney with Bet Tzedek. “When the application was English-only with no machine translation, my clients needed assistance to even attempt completing the application. Even with machine translation in a few languages now, the process is confusing, and the translation delay has prevented too many from applying for and accessing needed funds. The lack of clarity in the application process and unwillingness by HCD to prioritize outreach to and access for the most vulnerable Californians reinforces the continuing systemic inequities that exclude them from necessary resources.”       

A recent statewide survey also found that 92% of tenant advocates have seen technological barriers block renters from applying for help. As of May 2021, out of over 2,220 applications from San Francisco residents seeking help from the state program, just 88 were submitted from Chinese-speaking residents and 12 from Filipino-speaking residents. SFADC and their lawyers have heard from seniors, immigrant community members, people with disabilities, and other residents who have lost trust in the assistance program due to its unreliable and misleading translations. 

In the complaint, housing rights and community groups are calling on the Department of Fair Employment and Housing to investigate discriminatory barriers and require that the Department of Housing and Community Development:

*make the Emergency Rent Assistance Program application and information meaningfully accessible by translating all online application portals and paper applications;

*end the use of machine translation without human review and editing by a professional translator;

*ensure that the application process is accessible to people with disabilities;

*develop a procedure for people with disabilities to request a reasonable accommodation and make that information publicly available;

*increase phone line capacity and allow all those who wish to apply through the telephonic platform to do so, with real-time language assistance; and

*ensure that information on the availability of language services is prominently displayed in-language on the website, among other vital steps to remove discriminatory barriers. 

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