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Housing and Homelessness

CA Has Rent Relief To Give, But It’s Bypassing Some Immigrant Tenants

A person holds a handwritten sign on a poster board that reads: hashtag Eviction Free L.A.
Asian immigrant workers report not knowing about pandemic rental relief or having trouble applying.
AFP via Getty Images)
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California has a $5.2 billion rent relief program for tenants facing eviction during the pandemic. But that help is evidently not making it to some of the non-English speaking immigrants in need.

This has become increasingly apparent to Phuong Vo, who advocates for Vietnamese nail salon workers, a group particularly hard hit by the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders. Vo, who’s based in Garden Grove, says many technicians have never heard of the program or don’t know how to apply, largely because of language barriers.

An early analysis of California’s rent relief program showed that language barriers were reported at the highest rate by Asian and Pacific Islander survey participants.

Another issue is that many immigrant workers in blue-collar and service sector jobs rent rooms or share a house without formal lease agreements that are requested from applicants as proof of tenancy.

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Vo recognized the hurdles when her organization, California Healthy Nails Collaborative, put together phone banks to encourage salon workers to vote in last month’s gubernatorial recall election. Many of the workers said they felt politically disengaged because they weren’t seeing any pandemic help from the state as they struggled to cover the rent, not only for their apartments but their work booths.

Vo received more than 50 referrals after the phone banking. “These people who came to me are like single mothers or like single fathers with children,” Vo says. “We're looking right at the most vulnerable community members.”

Some workers discovered right away they weren't eligible for help with rent they already paid. Unaware that there was a statewide eviction moratorium that just expired last month, they borrowed money during the pandemic from family or lenders to keep up to date on the rent.

For those with unpaid back rent, Vo tried to find local organizations that had partnered with the state to provide application assistance. When none of them could offer help in Vietnamese, Vo, who is fluent, decided she would do the work herself. But she saw how challenging it could be for even those immigrants more comfortable with English.

“One of my first clients had enough English to apply, but the website was confusing enough that he didn’t submit, even though he thought he submitted,” Vo said.

A male nail salon worker applies fake nails to a woman's hand.
Chau Nguyen puts artificial nails on customer Bianca Alatorre.
(Maya Sugarman)

So far about 55,000 California households have received more than $650 million in rent and utilities assistance from the state. About 724,000 households are estimated to be $2.5 billion behind on rent, according to the National Equity Atlas.

For both online and printable applications for rent relief, the state website provides translation in Spanish and four Asian languages — Vietnamese, Korean, Tagalog and Chinese.

But with the online application, translations are mixed in with some English. Applicants are asked to type in their location in a space that says “find address or place,” and afterward press a “view” hyperlink that takes them to eligibility questions.

The eligibility questions are supposed to be translated, but as of last week on the Vietnamese application, they were in English. So Vietnamese-language applicants were asked in English, “Are you a landlord or a tenant?” and “Are you a member of one of the following tribes?” — in reference to California’s Native American tribes.

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KPCC/LAist pointed out the issue last Thursday to the state’s Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, which oversees the rental assistance program.

Spokesperson Russ Heimerich said a misdirected link was to blame. It was fixed later that day and now directs to questions translated in Vietnamese.

Immigrant advocates have for months been pressuring the state to improve language and disability access on its state housing website. This summer, a group that includes the Asian Law Caucus, filed a complaint against the state housing agency with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Tiffany Hickey, a staff attorney at Asian Law Caucus, said improvements have been made on the website since earlier this year. That’s when tenant advocates flagged an inaccurate Google translation that changed the “return” button into “Go back to your home country applicant.”

But as of this month, fact sheets on how to apply and how to check on the status of an application are only available in English and Spanish.

Also, Hickey said machine-made translation errors have continued to pop up on the housing website, which has a Google Translate drop down menu for different languages. Tenant advocates say English-to-Chinese translations have turned “save” into “conserve” and “application” into “technical/software program.”

“This is really problematic, because this is where people are submitting their household income information and submitting under penalty of perjury,” Hickey said.

To help applicants navigate the application process, the state has grown its list of local "partner" organizations to provide what Heimerich from the housing agency described as “culturally-competent assistance."

The housing agency has also increased advertising and outreach activities in different languages, devoting 12.3% of its marketing budget — or about $1 million — to Asian language strategies through television, social media and billboards. The bulk — 40% — is going into radio advertisements.

“We are doing everything we can to improve our outreach to non-English speaking communities,” Heimerich said. “We're still making an effort to reach out to the broader array of Californians and to match the diversity of Californians.”

Heimerich also encouraged tenants who know they will have trouble paying rent in the future to apply because the state program will pay prospective rent up to three months at a time. Heimerich said this could help those tenants who took out loans to be current with rent, but are still struggling.

Hairstylist Hung Nguyen of Santa Ana says he did receive outreach — an email — but it was in English so he didn't understand most of it and didn’t apply for help, even though he’s a year behind on paying for a room he rents in a house from a friend.

Vo is helping him apply for rent relief. But she’s worried that his informal living arrangement will doom his application.

“We just had his landlord sign a form that says, 'He owes me rent,’ Vo said. “It's like a document that I wrote up myself.”

Asked whether such an application could be approved, state spokesman Heimerich says each will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Vo says he is lucky the friend he rents from has let him stay without threat of eviction so that he can keep paying for his booth rental in Westminster.

Help is coming soon, Vo hopes. The average turnaround from the time a completed application is submitted to the time money is disbursed is four to five weeks.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.