(Special to Bay City News/smolaw)

Housing activists in San Francisco called on California officials Tuesday to make updates to the state’s Rental Relief Assistance program, specifically increasing access to the program for non-English speakers and people with limited internet access.

The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development first rolled out the application process for rental assistance last month, allowing low-income tenants who haven’t been able to access funds to pay back as much as 80 percent of back rent owed.

According to the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition, a group of over 20 local organizations, the program is urgently needed as low-income renters, many who have faced layoffs and other financial struggles due to COVID-19 and are scrambling for resources as a statewide eviction moratorium is set to expire by July.

But the group said the program effectively excludes low-income Californians who don’t have adequate internet and aren’t English proficient are being excluded from the program.

The coalition sent a letter Tuesday to the state Housing and Community Development Department, urging it to make changes to the online application process.

In the letter, the group said English-only pages on the program site, www.housingiskey.com, impose “a discriminatory barrier” to applicants who speak limited English. The group also cited an exclusively online application process that doesn’t offer appropriate language services for complete and accurate translations.

“What we’re talking about is not a simple website issue or even an access issue; it’s a racial and economic justice issue,” said Chinese Progressive Association Executive Director Shaw San Liu. “We know that working families, immigrant families, and Black, indigenous and communities of color have borne the brunt of COVID-19 in California, the Bay Area, and this country.”

Liu added, “We need relief programs that are designed to provide short term relief for our communities to be equitable and just. Too often we’ve seen that these programs are too difficult or exclusive to access for the people most impacted.”

According to California Department of Housing and Community Development spokeswoman Karen Naungayan, although the department just received the letter on Tuesday morning, it had already identified similar concerns and is currently in the process of making changes.

Changes being made include the addition of a language toggle to allow applicants to select from several languages, as well as the addition of paper applications in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian and Tagalog. In addition, the department has partnered with organizations across the state to provide help in other languages via phone.

Naungayan said, “We acknowledge that the CA COVID-19 Rent Relief program had to be launched in an extraordinary short period of time, leaving room for improvements that we continue to make daily. We are reaching out to the coalition as we continue to meet with various advocacy groups, legal aid organizations, and others to gather and incorporate their feedback as we work to improve the administration of this urgently needed program.”