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Advocacy groups press D.C. to make its rent relief program easier for non-English speakers to access

Groups demonstrate in front of the condo building of D.C. Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio in April to demand that the city release tens of millions of dollars in rent relief aid that Congress allocated. The District has since started distributing the funds through its program Stay DC. (Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post)

Ahead of a looming deadline for the District to use its federally allocated rent relief funds, local advocacy groups are pushing the city to make the application process easier to navigate for people who speak little or no English.

The Council for Court Excellence (CCE) — a nonprofit, nonpartisan civic organization that works to enhance the D.C. justice system — sent a letter Thursday to the D.C. Department of Human Services with a list of recommendations to improve STAY DC, the program the city set up to distribute the federal rent relief funds.

Since the District launched the program in April, tenant advocates say the application process has been marred by onerous paperwork requirements, translation problems and technical glitches. The CCE letter focuses on language-barrier issues and outlines three specific recommendations: change where the translation button is located on the website, do not list translated languages only in English, and use a different translation program.

The D.C. Department of Human Services was working on a response to CCE on Thursday, said Lauren Kinard, a spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Human Services.

Around May, CCE became aware of the difficulties non- and limited-English speakers were having accessing the website, said Sosseh Prom, the policy counsel.

“I think there is a valuable argument to make that the website is not meeting the requirements of the Language Access Act,” Prom said, referencing a D.C. law designed to ensure non-English speakers have the same access to government resources as English speakers. “It’s incredibly difficult for someone who does not speak English to navigate it and access these resources.”

Under STAY (Stronger Together by Assisting You) DC, people can apply for money to pay off outstanding rent and utility bills dating back to April 1, 2020, and three months of future rent. The program is meant to help eligible tenants resolve debt that may have accrued because of the pandemic.

While the program’s website provides translations in Spanish, Amharic, Chinese, French, Korean and Vietnamese through Google Translate, the translations aren’t always accurate, Prom said. Volunteers from the D.C. Language Access Coalition — who endorse the letter’s recommendations — found while going through the website that some of the interpretations didn’t match intended meanings. In the Chinese version of the website, for example, “STAY” could be translated to mean “stay” or “stop," according to CCE’s letter.

In total, nearly 20 D.C. advocacy organizations endorsed the recommendations, including Ayuda, which provides legal, social and language services to low-income immigrants.

Since April, many of Ayuda’s clients needed someone to fill out the application for them because of the language barrier, said Ana Plaza, the group’s social services director.

“It is an emergency, because our clients have the support from the organization, but there is many other individuals that do not have the support from agencies that provide these services,” Plaza said. “They do not have other options, so it’s either that they’re asking their little ones in the house that do speak English, but this is information that they shouldn’t be handling.”

Tenants in D.C. are struggling to secure rent relief. Advocates say the application process is to blame.

But there’s only a few months for these problems to be resolved. The District has until Sept. 30 to distribute about $130 million of the $200 million allocated by Congress; otherwise, it will lose any money it didn’t use, under Treasury Department rules. Earlier this month, the District had distributed less than a fifth of the $200 million.

Prom said the need to make these changes is urgent, given the upcoming deadline.

“There’s a limited time for how long we can have the federal funds for these resources," Prom said. "I think right now D.C. needs to reconcile that with their efforts.”