Language Assessment and Services

Outdated: being updated

The Fair Housing Toolkit brings together available resources to help appointed and elected leaders, municipal planning, housing and redevelopment officials, developers, citizen board members, and other volunteers understand how to affirmatively further fair housing.   Language can be a barrier to other fair housing efforts: including master planning, assessing fair housing, affirmative marketing planning and civic engagement.

This section provides resources that will assist municipalities and housing developers to more effectively reach out to and better communicate with individuals who are linguistically isolated and have limited English proficiency.

Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals are persons that do not speak English as their primary language and have a limited ability to read, write, speak, or understand English.

Linguistically isolated individuals (LI) live in a household where no person aged 14 or over speaks English “very well.” The definition is based on census questionnaires which ask respondents to evaluate how well each person in their household speaks English (if a language other than English is spoken in that household) based on the following criteria: “very well,” “well,” “not well,” and “not at all well.”

What is the need for language assessment in the region?

“Within little more than a generation, America is poised to become a nation where traditional minorities are in the majority.  Since 1990, some 500,000 foreign born residents have settled in the 5-county metropolitan area and three-quarters of them live outside city of Boston.  Not coincidentally, fewer people have English as their primary language. About 16 percent of the region’s immigrant population was “linguistically isolated” in 2010. Across the MetroFuture region, the languages spoken by people of limited English proficiency are distributed as follows: Spanish speakers (36.5%), individuals who speak European languages or languages from the Indian sub-continent (36.2%), people who speak Asian-Pacific languages (23.9%), and all other (3.5%).”[1]

Language for linguistically isolated and Limited English Proficiency (LEP) persons can be a barrier to accessing housing and other important benefits or services.  Without English proficiency, it can be difficult to comprehend local transportation options, communicate with schools or access municipal services, much less participate in recreational and social offerings. Language can potentially be a barrier to understanding and exercising important rights as well as complying with applicable responsibilities. In particular HUD, recognizes that language could be a barrier for those persons seeking:

  • Housing assistance from a public housing agency or assisted housing provider or are current tenants in such housing;
  • Assistance from a state or local government for home rehabilitation;
  • Supportive services to become first-time homebuyers;
  • Housing-related social services, training, or any other assistance from HUD recipients.

Local governments, agencies, non-profits and housing developers can assist in creating an open and inclusive community that encourages full participation by all its residents by providing language services that are directed to the populations in their municipality.

[1] MAPC.  Fair Housing and Equity Assessment.  2013. P 12

What are the legal requirements for Language Access?

Executive Order 13166 which was signed by President Clinton on August 11, 2000, eliminates, to the extent possible, limited English proficiency as a barrier to full and meaningful participation by beneficiaries in all federally-assisted and federally conducted programs and activities.

The U.S. Department of Justice has issued a Policy Guidance Document, Enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – National Origin Discrimination Against Persons With Limited English Proficiency to assist federal agencies in carrying out these responsibilities. This LEP Guidance sets forth the compliance standards that recipients of federal financial assistance must follow to ensure that their programs and activities normally provided in English are accessible to LEP persons. The ability of federal agencies and recipients of federal funds to ensure accessibility of programs to LEP persons prevents discrimination on the basis of national origin.

HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Proposed Rule will create new requirements for Assessing Fair Housing for local governments, states and public housing agencies.  Consolidated Plan and Public Housing Agency Plans will include assessment of language needs and identification of any need for translation of notices and other vital documents.  The proposed rule expressly requires that language assistance should be available to LEP persons to ensure participation in the planning process.

Guidelines to Address Language Access

Recognizing the importance of overcoming language barriers, the federal government has provided guidelines to assist federal recipients to serve LEP persons.    A Language Access Plan (LAP) is one tool that can be used by municipalities to assess specific language needs and establish a strategy to address these needs.  Municipal LAPs are a useful reference for housing developers to provide assistance in their goal to create affirmative marketing plans that effectively reach out to LEP and LI populations. The LAP is built on a Four Factor Analysis, which provides a template to evaluate language services by evaluating:

  1. The number or proportion of LEP persons eligible to be served or likely to be encountered by the program or grantee;
  2. The frequency with which LEP persons come in contact with the program;
  3. The nature and importance of the program, activity, or service provided by the program to people’s lives; and
  4. The resources available to the grantee/ recipient and cost of the service.

Useful Data in Understanding a Community’s LEP and LI population:

  • S. Census data. Language Use data includes numbers of LEP and LI individuals as well as the specific languages these populations speak. The Census Bureau has also created a website explaining how to use the language data it collects.
  • Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE). DOE enrollment data tabulates the percentage of the enrolled population, by district, that are LEP. School district data on the languages spoken by LEP students, by number of student, is available by request ( or by contacting individual school districts.
  • Original data. Municipalities can create a record to identify and track the number of LEP individuals who participate in or engage in different levels of community services. After the points of contact between staff and LEP individuals are identified, existing forms could be amended to create data fields for LEP, languages spoken and the preferred language for written communication for staff to collect this information.

The most accurate information on LEP and LI populations will be gathered from utilizing a combination of these data sources with language assistance experience from organizations that work with LEP persons. The local or regional hospital is another useful source of population data and language needs. Most large health care institutions have programs to overcome language barriers. Hospitals assessment of language needs may rely more on experience with patients, than general population information.  Staff assess language needs including interpretation or translation based upon direct care with the general population.

Approaches to Interpretation and Translation

Once an area’s LEP populations, and the languages that those populations speak, have been identified, planners and developers need to determine the best method to identify and fund interpretation and translation services.

One essential step is to communicate to the LEP person that these services are available. “I Speak” Cards can be used to help LEP individuals identify which language they speak.   The cards are actually developed by the Census Bureau.  The most current is based on 2010 data.  The cards can be treated like posters and put in conspicuous locations where LEP persons may be approaching the municipality of agency for service.  The cards indicate in numerous languages that language services are available.

Interpretation can take place in-person, through a telephonic interpreter, or via internet or video interpreting. Most Language Access Plans call for on-staff assistance as a first priority; if that is not available telephonic interpretation is available from several companies.  Fee arrangements can be with a monthly retainer and/or a per minute fee.

Municipalities should establish a list of vital documents that need to be translated to ensure meaningful access by LEP individuals.  The Department of Justice provides the following examples of what may constitute as a vital document; consent and complaint forms; intake and application forms with the potential for important consequences; written notices of rights; notices of denials, losses, or decreases in benefits or services; notice of disciplinary action; signs; and notices advising LEP individuals of free language assistance services.   HUD program participants are required to provide meaningful access.

Planners and developers can improve the outcome of translation by incorporating plain language into vital documents. The Legal Services Corporation created a Plain Language Training Course that presents simple tips on using appropriate language and design to create documents that are easy to read.

Depending on available resources, a municipality or agency can designate a person or department for quality control responsibility.  For example, the City of San Francisco’s Office of Civic Engagement & Immigrant Affairs (OCEIA) maintains a list of approved translation and interpretation services.  OCEIA is responsible for performing quality control on this list.

Examples of Language Assistance Plans

The City of Quincy, with a large Chinese, Spanish and Vietnamese population, has a long-standing commitment to assisting LEP persons.  Quincy’s Language Assistance Plan generally followed the four factor analysis and identified critical documents for translation.  For telephonic and in person translation, the City specified two steps: on-site translation or contract telephonic translation.

In Lowell, the three dominant non-English languages are Khmer, Spanish and Portuguese.  Lowell includes specific reference to the four factor analysis in its Limited English Proficiency Plan.  The City also has a detailed analysis of language by neighborhood.  In addition to interpretation and translation services, Lowell specifies outreach efforts, staff training and monitoring.

The Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development has created  a Language Access Plan.  The Plan is in two parts.  The narrative takes a broad approach  to the subject complimented by data on LEPs in the state and by region.  The plan gives HUD safe harbor guidelines (translation requirements related to size of language groups),  help identifying LEP population and approaches to language assistance.   The appendix of the LAP gives guidance to agencies administering DHCD programs in some detail.  For instance, it strongly recommends a partnering relationship with non-profits agencies which translation resources.   One agency with translation capacity in the region is the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership (MBHP).   The MBHP also has a Language Assistance Plan.

Few housing authorities have addressed LEP issues.  The Boston Housing Authority has a Limited English Proficiency Policy which assigns a Language Access Coordinator and provides for an annual assessment of the language assistance needs of the Authority.   The BHA also more recently completed a Four Factor Analysis with detailed information on the use of a language line service and interpreter requests.

The Marin Housing Authority’ Language Assistance Program includes a four factor analysis as an appendix.  This Plan/Program is different from a local or state government, since it recognizes the need for continual interaction with LEP residents and applicants.  For instance the MHA also details points of contact with LEP persons, while also providing the specifics for translation and interpretation.

Resources on Language Access

The Language Access Assessment and Planning Tool for Federally Conducted and Federally Assisted Programs, published by the U.S. Department of Justice in May, 2011 provides guidance on language access self-assessments, components of a language access program, and implementation of language access services.

The guide Executive Order 13166: Limited English Proficiency Resource Document: Tips and Tools from the Field  is published by the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division.  The guide identifies resources and guidelines for determining an organization’s language needs, identifying language resources that meet those needs, methods to work effectively with LEP individuals and steps to ensure quality control conducting meaningful outreach.

The City of San Francisco, California enacted a Language Access Ordinance (LAO) in 2001 to provide “equal access to city services to all San Franciscans, including those with limited proficiency in English.”  The LAO empowers the Office of Civic Engagement & Immigrant Affairs (OCEIA) to oversee citywide compliance with language access laws.  The OCEIA issues an annual summary compliance report which includes LAO requirements by department and department specific recommendations to address obstacles.

The Massachusetts Office of Access and Opportunity has published an Administrative Bulletin, Language Access Policy and Implementation Guidelines.  The purpose of this Bulletin is to give guidance to state agencies for Language Access Plans.  The Bulletin reviews U.S. Department of Justice guidance, including the four factor analysis and requirements for Language Access Plans (LAP).  The Office reviews LAPs and reviews any language access complaints.

Reasonable Accommodation

Reasonable Accommodation is a broader application to assist people with disabilities.   Reasonable Accommodation is reviewed in detail in Fair Housing Case Law and Fair Housing Laws, Regulations and Executive Orders [create links]. As one example, the Boston Housing Authority, which has an LAP reviewed above, also has a Reasonable Accommodation Policy for both Public Housing and Leased Housing.