Emergency rent relief application difficult and misleading, organizers say

N.M. residents say the state-created form discourages people from getting the help they need

By: - September 8, 2021 6:10 am

Chainbreaker Collective canvassers Yetzali Reyna, Cipriana Jurado Herrera, Patricia Aguilar and Mari Aguilar set up a space to help tenants at Evergreen Apartments in Santa Fe apply for emergency rental assistance on Sept. 7, 2021. (Photo by Austin Fisher/Source NM)

Mayela Bernal was already struggling to pay rent when she caught COVID-19 in May, which left her hospitalized for a week.

Bernal is a hair stylist who immigrated from Mexico. With the loss of income, her younger child had to take out a loan to pay rent for their apartment in Santa Fe.

 A friend who was working for Chainbreaker Collective, an economic and environmental justice organization in the city, told her she could get help paying her rent from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Chainbreaker also helped her pay for groceries.

The application for rental assistance was created by the state in order to distribute millions in federal emergency relief to tenants at risk of eviction. The law that created the relief program was passed in December 2020.

Bernal had difficulty collecting all of the documents needed to complete the application, including the lease agreement from her landlord. She said it took her about a week to finish it.

“It’s too confusing for some people who are not able to start the application and finish it in one day — or even for several weeks,” Bernal said through an interpreter. She knows this because she has also been canvassing apartment complexes across Santa Fe with other Chainbreaker members.

She is not alone. Interviews with other canvassers show that New Mexico’s application for emergency rent relief is too complex, requires too many documents, scares undocumented people away from participating and is poorly-translated into Spanish.

Yetzali Reyna, another canvasser with Chainbreaker, said the application process is not designed for people who have low incomes or others in need, because it is too difficult to obtain a paper copy from the state. Instead, they have been printing out paper copies for tenants, helping them fill it out and then uploading pictures of the completed applications to RentHelpNM.org.

Getting relief money into tenants’ pockets has become even more urgent after the U.S. Supreme Court on Aug. 26 blocked the Biden administration from enforcing the latest federal moratorium on evictions, imposed as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the federal moratorium is gone, New Mexico still has a statewide moratorium put in place by the state’s high court. 

The city of Santa Fe has an even stronger local moratorium that is tied to the statewide one. It prohibits landlords from even threatening tenants with eviction for nonpayment of rent. But to enforce it, a tenant must contact local police, who then have to make a report and give it to the city attorney, who then in turn must file a complaint against the landlord.

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In the entire time the local moratorium has been in place, only two tenants with whom Chainbreaker has worked have ever chosen to go that route, Cathy Garcia said. Police do not have any knowledge of tenant law, she said.

None of these eviction bans stop landlords from kicking people out for other reasons, she added. The moratorium never stopped landlords from simply handing tenants a 30-day notice to get out and saying it has nothing to do with paying rent, she said.

Garcia presented Chainbreaker’s policy recommendations to the city of Santa Fe’s quality of life committee on Sept. 1. She recommended the city government codify the protections in the moratorium to make them permanent.

“We need to look at and examine the current city emergency order and how we can expand it under whatever we’re allowed to do” Garcia said. “Can we strengthen the moratorium, say, by expanding it into certain ZIP codes and saying in these ZIP codes, the moratorium will last for even longer, because they’re even more vulnerable? Can we strengthen it by expanding who qualifies for the eviction moratorium and who is protected by it?”

Crunch-time for rent relief distro

Time is running out for the state to distribute the federal emergency rent relief money: The U.S. Treasury Department said it will take the funds back starting on Sept. 30 if state governments don’t obligate at least 65% of the money.

New Mexico officials say they will meet the deadline, but canvassers are skeptical given how difficult it is for tenants to access the funds.

As of Sept. 1, the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration had obligated about 46% of the money, Secretary Debbie Romero told a panel of lawmakers. That figure includes money distributed under the program for rent, utilities, outreach and other emergency programs, she said.

“Between utility bill payments and some of the other strategies that we’re using, I think we’re going to meet that 65% target very easily,” Romero said.

There are still about 22,000 households in New Mexico who are behind on rent, totaling more than $47 million in estimated rent debt, according to the National Equity Atlas.

Form mixups

The program is open to all residents of New Mexico, regardless of their citizenship status. People who are undocumented, however, see the field on the online form asking for a Social Security number, and that makes them think they aren’t eligible, Reyna said. They often just give up.

“Some tenants just get desperate and don’t finish the application,” Bernal said, “even though undocumented immigrants are providing for the city and the state. We want to support the state leaders but we want the same from them. They should do more for low-income people, people of all races — everyone in need.”

The  application doesn’t make it clear that a Social Security number  isn’t required to receive the emergency rent help. Plus, if someone is filling it out online, the system requires those fields are addressed anyway.

In response to questions from Source NM about the problem, an official with the state’s Department of Finance and Administration, said he would check on it. Donnie Quintana is the in charge of the emergency rental assistance program for New Mexico.

“I’m pretty sure we’ve worked on that many times,” he said, “may be an oversight somewhere.”

The application also asks for information about the landlord, like their phone number and email address. That’s not required for the state to release the funds to the tenant, but the application doesn’t say that.

“So there are lots of landlords who are refusing to participate in this process, who are refusing to give things like their email and their phone number to the tenant,” Garcia said. When tenants hit that field on the form, many people who may have bad relationships with their landlords give up, even though they are still eligible, she said.

Language barriers

The English version of the form itself is a little unclear, Garcia said. For example, the application requires the person’s physical address to be the same as their mailing address, and that can be confusing depending on your living situation, she said. It also asks how far behind the tenant is on rent but doesn’t specify whether that answer should be measured in months or dollars.

There is a Spanish-language version of the application. But multiple canvassers who speak Spanish said the translation is itself confusing and appears to be lifted from Google Translate.

“What state are we living in?” Garcia said.

Some of the translations make the questions even longer and more complex, Reyna said.

It’s obvious to Isabel Jurado Herrera that the form was created via Google Translate, because it’s “a bit too literal.”

Jurado Herrera pointed out that  many Spanish-speakers came here at a young age and did not have an opportunity to complete middle school. The form needs to be translated at a level that more people can understand, she said. 

Misgivings about bureaucracy in the politically hostile environment of the U.S. is a factor, too.

People will do anything to not have to deal with the government, because they’re afraid or because they don’t want to deal with all of the extra paperwork that happened.

– Isabel Jurado Herrera

Despite the bans on evictions, landlords in New Mexico have filed more than 11,000 eviction notices since the start of the pandemic, according to a Searchlight New Mexico investigation.

Bernal said ongoing evictions in Santa Fe — which has higher rents than 90 percent of the state — and the state make her feel confused, upset and powerless.

“We have been seeing a lot of cases where there are people that are being evicted from their homes, and they have little kids with them,” Bernal said. “We feel powerless because we can’t do anything to help them, really. It’s sad that people are being evicted, and we want to change that.”

Missing key info

Garcia said one of the problems with eviction data is that the public does not know how many eviction notices have been given to tenants.

There are various types of eviction notices, and the only one protected by the New Mexico moratorium is non-payment of rent. At this first stage in the process, the record of the eviction only exists between the landlord and the tenant, she said.

When most people get the eviction notice, they think they must immediately move out, because they don’t know there are more steps in the eviction process. In those situations, she said, the public never learns that the eviction happened.

Quintana, who’s heading the relief program for the state, told lawmakers his office is working with the Administrative Office of the Courts to develop a “court diversion program” to get landlords and tenants to mediate before an eviction, which would include an opportunity to apply for rental assistance.

He said the office sends the department a list every week “of all the evictions throughout the state of those renters that are tenants that have been served an eviction notice.”

Later, in a Sept. 7 interview, Quintana said the list is not of eviction notices to tenants but of writs of eviction filed in courts, which are only filed if a tenant refuses to pay up.

An eviction notice is a private record between a landlord and a tenant, and a writ of eviction is a public record filed in a court.

Quintana said the department cross-references the lists they receive from the courts with their emergency relief database. Those who have already applied for help get their applications expedited, he said, and those who haven’t yet are contacted and encouraged to apply.

“We don’t know everybody out there,” he said. “We don’t have databases that tell us who rents and who doesn’t rent. That’d be great. We don’t have a database of landlords, you know what I mean? So we’re trying to find out who they are. We’re trying every means we possibly can to educate people about the program, and more importantly, to get them to apply.”

Facing eviction?

Apply for emergency rent relief online at RentHelpNM.org

Chainbreaker Collective Eviction Hotline: (505) 577-5481

Know your rights as a tenant

Find affordable housing

Report housing discrimination to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development:

Call 1-800-669-9777 or 1-800-877-8339 or do it online

 

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

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