Improving Language Access for Local Rent Relief Programs

The Council for Court Excellence (CCE), a Washington, D.C.-based legal advocacy group, has recently published a letter calling on D.C.’s government to make its rent relief programs more accessible for individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP) and non-English proficiency (NEP). The District launched the program, called STAY DC, back in April 2020, in an effort to help residents who are struggling to pay their rent. 

“Through this letter, CCE would like to bring your attention to three deficiencies with the translation function on the STAY DC website,” the letter reads. “We hope these issues can be resolved as soon as possible to ensure that LEP and NEP individuals are able to access financial assistance that is vital for survival during these trying times.”

A recent report from The Washington Post claims that, in the year and a half since the rent relief program began, tenant advocates have been asking local government officials to improve its accessibility, particularly with regards to the exorbitant amount of paperwork necessary to access the program. And of course, with lots of paperwork naturally comes lots of language barrier-related issues, especially if officials don’t treat language access as a priority in the planning process before a program’s launch.

CCE makes three main recommendations in its letter: make the translation feature on the rent relief program’s webpage more visible, list the names of translatable languages in their language (as opposed to English), and adopt a new translation system other than Google Translate. The letter notes that Google Translate creates misleading translations with several errors (for example, the name of the program “STAY DC,” could be interpreted as “STOP, DC” in the Chinese translation of the website).

Access to housing has long been an issue for individuals with LEP and NEP — oftentimes, developers or mortgage lenders are hesitant to provide equal access to such individuals due to the fact that language access services can be costly. In the event that other translation systems are too costly or difficult to implement, CCE recommends hiring professional translators to review and edit the machine translations before they are posted to the STAY DC webpage.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted families around the nation, and we cannot deny that immigrant communities have been disproportionately affected. D.C. has previously heightened the problem by failing to provide adequate interpretation and translation services for vaccination resources and programs,” the CCE letter reads. “Repeating these past mistakes has literally become a matter of life or death.”

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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