A refugee crisis runs into a housing crisis
By Miriam Jordan
After a harrowing escape from Afghanistan and three months on a military base in New Jersey, Mohammad bin Rahimi and his family of nine felt fortunate that they would finally have a new home, in Owensboro, a small Kentucky city on the Ohio River.
But they didn’t expect to find themselves on the edge of a farm in a cramped, 1850s-era log cabin reminiscent of Daniel Boone and other American pioneers.
“We are very happy to be in Kentucky,” said Rahimi, 48, a former U.S. Embassy security guard in Kabul. He expressed deep gratitude for the warm reception in Owensboro but said his family was afraid to venture outdoors at night, so remote was their new lodging. “We look forward to moving into a real house,” he said.
As Afghan refugees are released from bases by the thousands each week to start rebuilding their lives in the United States, they are bumping up against an unexpected obstacle: the housing crisis.
Resettlement agencies have scrambled to find rentals in cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and St. Louis as well in towns like Owensboro and Reno, Nevada, where lease properties are in short supply, expensive or both. The coronavirus pandemic, complaints of discrimination and the sheer number of newly arriving Afghans have also posed challenges.
As of Monday, more than 40,000 Afghans had completed their processing and departed for new homes; some 30,000 others remained on seven military bases that the government hopes to empty as soon as possible.
In Reno, a hot real estate market where the average apartment rents for $1,600, Afghans are being placed in motels, mother-in-law units, people’s basements and Airbnbs, said Carina Black, executive director at Northern Nevada International Center, which has absorbed more refugees in one month than in the past two years combined.
“We’re so overwhelmed,” Black said. “These folks were under the impression they were going into permanent housing when they left the bases. Instead, we are in a broad search for temporary housing.”
Owensboro, a city of about 60,000, was considered an ideal location to resettle Afghan refugees: The cost of living is low, jobs are plentiful, and schools are solid.
But rentals are scarce.
Two Afghan families are living in a 147-year-old convent 15 miles from town. Some are staying in youth centers at churches. And dozens are holed up in a motel.
“We are very bored here. My wife cries every day. She is thinking all the time about her family in Afghanistan,” Zakirullah Ahmadzai, 32, said as his wife, Noorsabah Quroishi, 24, was wiping her tears with the fringes of her hijab in the dining room of a Comfort Suites.
“We had good life over there. We had good houses. Now we are zero,” said Ahmadzai, who was a businessman in Afghanistan.
When would they have homes? Would they come with kitchens? Hot running water?
Those were some of the questions that 18 Afghan men in the lobby of the Comfort Suites lobbed at Khaibar Shafaq, an English-speaking evacuee who worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross and has assumed the role of interlocutor between his fellow Afghans and the International Center, the local resettlement agency.
“We are really happy here. But since we are with the family, it would have been much better to move to our houses,” said Haji Mohammad Yarmal, a father of four.
Landlords and property managers, who can afford to be picky in a tight market, have been reluctant to take a chance on foreigners who still lack jobs and permanent residency status, and who often have large families. Many have demanded credit history, background checks and co-signers, all of which aren’t typically required of newly arrived refugees.
“They don’t say ‘no,’” said Diana Ford, a community leader who is leading an extensive volunteer effort to assist the newcomers. “They say, ‘We don’t have anything available.’”
Unlike refugees moving to cities like Sacramento, California, and Houston, with established Afghan communities, evacuees arriving in smaller towns have no relatives to take them in.
Ford has tapped business and faith leaders and local foundations to help find Afghans housing, cover their motel rooms and feed them — to spare the refugees from having to dip into their one-time cash stipends from the U.S. government, usually about $1,200 per family member, that are intended for rent.
In big cities, refugees are finding that rentals are plentiful but the cost prohibitively high. In small towns like Owensboro, prices are lower, but inventory is extremely limited.
“Already we had a shortage of rental properties, and now we have Afghan families desperately needing a place to live,’’ said Jaclyn Graves, chief executive of the Greater Owensboro Realtor Association.
The market has long catered to homebuyers attracted to that town, which is between Louisville and Nashville, Tennessee, where “you can get a lot of bang for the buck,” Graves said. But the Afghans are unlikely to be able to afford to buy a home until they have jobs and steady income.
The pace of arrivals in town ramped up rapidly, with 30 people arriving on some days.
By late November, the Comfort Suites had become a bustling Afghan hub. A team led by Shafaq created spreadsheets with details about the people in each room, including ages, clothing sizes, languages spoken and professions.
Ford raised money to supply lunches daily from Panera, Red Lobster and other eateries. A former cook for the U.S. military began preparing dinner each night at First Christian Church, with donated ingredients and halal meat supplied by a mosque in nearby Evansville, Indiana.
A sense of community has blossomed among the 160 Afghans at the motel, who have different ethnic, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds.
On a balmy autumn afternoon, children in the parking lot sped around on a luggage cart. Others played volleyball with soccer balls, as adults tapped away on their cellphones. Volunteers unloaded hygiene products, prayer rugs and other items from cars, and ferried people to dental and medical appointments.
Over a dinner of Afghan chicken, cabbage stew and salad, several adolescent girls who had become fast friends said they relished being in America, where bombs did not jolt them awake at night and the Taliban could not stifle their dreams. Mursal Nazari, 15, who aspires to become a doctor, highlighted the greenery, the calm and the kind people she had met in Owensboro.
But life in the motel is monotonous. Outings are limited to the occasional trip to Walmart, a park or the mosque for Friday prayers. Although the refugees are grateful to be in the United States, frustration is rising.
“People were told they would go directly to houses when they left the bases,” Shafaq said. “What has been told to them is not actually happening. They are losing trust in the process.”
Susan Montalvo-Gesser, a local lawyer who is on the board of the International Center, drafted a letter to Owensboro landlords and property managers to ease any concerns.
Afghan refugees, she wrote, “have had more extensive background checks” than local rental applicants, whose records are verified only against state criminal and eviction records. The letter also said that the resettlement agency was willing to co-sign leases.
A few days later, there was a breakthrough.
“We got 12 to 13 more houses today,” said Anna Allen, director of the International Center. “Another landlord said that not only does he have an apartment, but he’s going to have 12 more units available next month.”
“I’m feeling on top of the world,” she said. “I can breathe.”