Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration launched a new rental assistance program this week, and a website to go along with it, for residents struggling to afford housing. The Bowser administration is receiving $352 million in federal dollars to support the new program called “Stay DC,” $130 million of which needs to be spent by September. But some tenants, namely non-English speakers, may struggle to access these dollars because they can’t navigate the application process on the website, stay.dc.gov. There are tenants that can’t make rent and don’t speak English, like those living at Meridian Heights in Columbia Heights. According to Census data, 17 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home. 

First off, what exactly is Stay DC? 

The program can help a resident pay rent going back to April 1, 2020, or upcoming rent up to three months at a time. (Limited Equity Cooperative members can also apply.) The program can also help residents pay water, gas, and electricity expenses. To qualify, a resident must make an annual income equal to or less than 80 percent of D.C.’s Area Median Income, or $57,650 for a household of one. Residents must prove financial hardship and housing instability. They do that through documentation, like tax forms, pay stubs, and bank statements. According to one guide, a written attestation signed by the applicant can be used to prove financial hardship and housing instability, if other documents cannot be provided. A landlord can apply on a tenant’s behalf, but government officials will ask the tenant to confirm information before funds are released.

What if you already applied to the COVID-19 Housing Assistance Program, or CHAP? 

Stay DC replaces this program. At a virtual town hall on Tuesday afternoon, Director of the Department of Housing and Community Development Polly Donaldson said her agency should have already contacted residents who applied to CHAP to inform them about next steps. Residents that applied and submitted supporting documentation should have been assigned to a community-based organization to process their information so they can get assistance. Residents that applied without documentation will be asked to apply to Stay DC; Donaldson estimated that to be 600 people.      

At the town hall, Director of the Department of Human Services Laura Zeilinger said nearly 2,000 applications have come in since Stay DC launched on Monday. She encouraged residents to continue to apply on the website. Donaldson couldn’t say when tenants should expect to be approved, but that processing each and every application will take some time. Zeilinger said funds should be dispersed within a week of validating an application.  

Zeilinger said the main website is translated in multiple languages, but acknowledged “some links” were not translated. If someone cannot navigate the site, Zeilinger instructed them to call the center because staff speak English and Spanish, and interpretation services will be available for other languages. But the call center at (833) 478-2932 is only available weekdays between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. And call takers cannot submit applications on behalf of tenants, only answer questions. One critical link that is not yet translated as of Wednesday morning: the application portal. 

When asked about translations for the portal during the town hall, Zeilinger instructed residents to look at resources at the bottom of the main website, specifically the application user guides and paper applications. But user guides feature screenshots of the portal, which is strictly in English. Residents can download a paper application on the landing page, which is fully translated into six commonly used languages. They’ll have to drop off a paper application to one of six organizations, located in Wards 1, 7, and 8. “To be able to [apply] electronically … there is just an issue with something on the website that will be fixed imminently,” said Zeilinger. 

A tenant organizer with Stomp Out Slumlords, Allison Hrabar, first flagged the translation issue on Monday morning. City Paper then flagged the issue for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development at a press conference that day. At the press conference, officials incorrectly said the web-based application is available in more than 100 languages. DMPED staff said they would try and resolve the issue with the Deloitte-contracted website by the end of day on Monday. However, the issue is still not resolved.  

A managing attorney with Bread for the City, Allison Miles-Lee, is not surprised that the application portal is not translated. As a member of the D.C. Language Access Coalition—a network of organizations that formed to ensure the Language Access Act of 2004 is actually implemented—Miles-Lee often sees the D.C. government launch new programs that are inaccessible to limited English proficient or non-English proficient speakers. For example, the website for CHAP was not translated, so residents had to apply by phone. When one of Miles-Lee’s clients tried, the call went to voicemail.       

“I was really frustrated to see this happening again with another government resource,” says Miles-Lee. “It’s an example of the D.C. government not working in the LEP/NEP population from the beginning, creating these new systems, creating new websites, and not including these D.C. residents from the ground floor and then later reacting when advocates call them out on it or get upset and point out that they have this requirement under the law to provide translations.”

The first thing Miles-Lee noticed when she visited stay.dc.gov is that the website uses the flag of Spain to cue the Spanish translation. (D.C.’s largest Spanish-speaking population is from El Salvador.) After looking at the resources available in Spanish, Miles-Lee believes the translations were not professionally done. She also knows paper applications to be an inadequate replacement for electronic applications, because she’s had clients who submitted applications to the Department of Human Services for other programs this way and they’ve gotten lost. 

Yemisrach Wolde, a community building manager with the Ethiopian Community Center, says Amharic translations for both the main website and paper application are “unintelligible.” Some sentences for the paper application were so convoluted that Wolde had to revert to the English version just to understand what the translation is trying to say. She believes the translations need to be redone, and the website is challenging to navigate, generally speaking.     

Advocates hope that the D.C. government and contractor will adequately translate the portal very soon. For context, it took roughly a month for officials to translate the vaccine portal after they said they would.

—Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com

Department of Corrections: Yesterday’s newsletter incorrectly called the blood clotting problems a “side effect” of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine when the data is still inconclusive. Experts do not yet know if the blood clots were caused by the vaccine. The CDC’s independent panel of experts will be deliberating as much on Wednesday. For more information on this, I recommend this article in STAT.

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