By Hannah Presser and Chuni Lu, The International Rescue Committee
Urban space in North America is continuously re-invigorated by newcomer populations. Take for example the new waves of immigrants arriving in New York City from Asia and the global south establishing themselves in Little Italy, a once European enclave. A significant portion of these newcomers are refugees arriving through the U.S. refugee resettlement program, which has welcomed over 3.7 million people into American cities and towns since its inception. While the strength of the refugee program continues with President Biden’s recent pledges to welcome 125,000 refugees in 2023, U.S. rental markets are struggling to keep up.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, renters in the United States were already facing a housing affordability crisis, according to The Rent Eats First: Rental Housing Unaffordability in the U.S., published by the Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) at Harvard University in January 2021. JCHS found that nearly 25% of renters in the U.S. were spending more than 50% of their monthly incomes on rent, with little income left to cover other household expenses. Another JCHS study published in 2021 showed that over 80% of Black, Hispanic, and Asian renters earning less than $25,000 annually faced severe cost burdens (paying over 50% of household income for housing). The Harvard University study referred to this as a “chronic lack of affordable housing for households of modest means.”
Since 2008, the average cost of rent in the U.S. has increased nearly 50%, outpacing both inflation and wage growth over the same period. Moreover, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. experienced the tightest rental market in history. Average rent increased 15% from January 2021 to January 2022 while average vacancy rates continue to decline across the nation.
With stagnant wages and current U.S. inflation rates at more than 8%, the cost of living across the nation has become increasingly difficult. The National Low Income Housing Coalition published Out of Reach: The High Cost of Housing, which indicated that to afford a modest one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartment, a full-time worker, working 40 hours a week for 52 weeks a year, must earn on average $20.40 and $24.90 per hour, respectively. The report further confirms that eleven of the twenty most popular occupations in the country, including caregiver, janitor, and food server, provide a median wage lower than the wage needed by a full-time worker to afford most rental housing.
In August 2021, following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, over 76,000 vulnerable Afghans who worked alongside the U.S Government were evacuated through Operation Allies Welcome. On arrival, resettlement agencies were tasked with resettling an unprecedented number of people in U.S. cities within six months. In addition to challenges posed by a historically tight housing market, new Afghan arrivals also faced barriers to housing access that are common to other disadvantaged populations in the United States.
While the current housing model empowers newly arrived refugees to directly enter the mainstream market, a shortage of housing stock and low vacancy rates make it tough for refugees to be approved for leases that often require credit, rental, and employment histories. Resettlement agencies have experienced greater reluctance from landlords and property management companies in renting to refugees unless they have a co-signer or leave an extra security deposit.
Additionally, the increased usage of online applications and automated processes in credit, employment and rental history checks often result in exclusion of applicants with no social security numbers and little digital literacy. Refugees with limited technological knowledge are put at a disadvantage before the application process begins, as platforms do not provide support to speak directly to someone with decision-making authority
Due to these financial requirements, even if there are available affordable rental units, resettlement agencies struggle to secure housing units in time for newly arrived refugees who often require housing within a two week notice period. Due to limited supply for affordable homes and obstacles in housing access, most newcomer families are living in temporary housing upon arrival, such as hotels and Airbnb short term rentals. Finding quality affordable housing has never been more challenging for resettlement agencies.
As a resettlement agency, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) takes the following approaches to tackle those challenges:
Connecting with landlords and dispelling misconceptions about refugees is essential to resettlement. IRC staff work with landlords to explain that refugees are no different than renting to other populations and excellent candidates for leasing. Clients of resettlement agencies receive financial support from local resettlement offices and other public assistance as well as enrollment in employment programs. The local resettlement offices also provide support to ensure a smooth leasing experience for clients and landlords. Prior to moving in, the resettlement agency will support the clients in the leasing process, teach clients about the terms and rules of the lease agreement, coach clients on their responsibilities while respecting client’s self-determination and decision making, and provide household supplies and furnishings for clients.
Creative Housing Solutions
Many U.S. universities deem it part of their mission to welcome refugees. In 2022, with the onset of the war in Ukraine, some international university students became refugees overnight. IRC has explored campus housing opportunities with several colleges to reshape their unused dorms into temporary housing for incoming arrivals. Arizona State University agreed to provide campus housing to IRC in Phoenix for Afghan resettlement. Additionally, University of Maryland in Baltimore and Notre Dame de Namur in California work with IRC and Every Campus a Refuge to provide campus housing for resettlement efforts.
Support from Community Members
Many community members approached IRC to offer their homes for Afghan resettlement efforts. While others offered their homes for free or at discounted rates via Airbnb.org. The IRC has also made housing needs a targeted part of our public facing engagement on how to support. The vital role of civil society and community members cannot be understated.
Providing Lending and Support Options
Creating opportunities for newcomers to build credit and assets upon their arrival is key to their ability to flourish in the U.S. In conjunction with the Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO), IRC and CEO have created loan options for refugees who need assistance in achieving financial resilience. The Rent Pre-Payment (RPP) program and the Guarantee Fund program for co-signing and rent guarantee help refugees without employment and credit gain access to housing.
The RPP program provides funding to prepay up to 6 months of rent upfront to help clients secure permanent housing and build credit. RPP loans have no interest and no fees. Under the Guarantee Fund program, the IRC guarantees rent for up to 12 months.
As a final boon to the U.S.’s public-private partnership resettlement model, the government should allocate additional funds to meet higher demand and higher prices. The grants that support refugees as they get on their feet simply have not kept pace with inflation or the rapid increase in housing costs. Governments at all levels — local, state, and federal—should work on affordable housing solutions for all populations, which will in turn benefit refugee renters. These practices will help maintain welcoming and inclusive cities; having former refugees as our neighbors shapes a more resilient urban future.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) helps people whose life and livelihood are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover, and regain control of their future. IRC field offices in 28 cities across the United States operate the Reception and Placement (R&P) Program and Afghan Placement and Assistance (APA) Program for the Department of State, Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM).