Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP Photo
Thousands of people fleeing from Afghanistan have arrived in the Washington region, which already has a sizable Afghan diaspora. But many advocates say high housing prices are one of the biggest barriers for the new generation of Afghan arriving here.
Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP Photo
When Abdul arrived in Alexandria as a refugee from Afghanistan in 2016, he came with his wife, their infant son, and $1,000. The rent at his first apartment was $1,300 per month, plus two months' rent for the security deposit.
"I thought, 'How can I do that?'" he says.
Abdul borrowed money from a friend to secure the apartment. He later paid him back using benefits he received from the resettlement agency that helped him transition to life in the U.S. Today, Abdul — whose last name we're withholding to protect his family in Afghanistan — works for a nonprofit that helps find housing for Afghan refugees like himself. But many newcomers are facing even tougher situations than he did five years ago.
Right now, thousands of Afghans fleeing the Taliban are camped out at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Virginia, while a handful of local nonprofits scramble to locate permanent housing for every family who is eligible for resettlement in the Washington region. Many refugees left home in a hurry, with scarce money and no English proficiency. Some have multiple young children or require medical attention. Many thousands lack even the basic benefits granted to holders of Special Immigrant Visas, the designation reserved for Afghans who worked for the U.S. government during the 20-year war.
And now, those who wish to stay here must navigate one of the country's most expensive housing markets.
"Imagine approaching this, and you have no nest egg. You have no background as a renter. And you're facing landlords who are asking for six months of upfront costs in order to take in a refugee family," says Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
"People are coming in with nothing. Maybe a suitcase, maybe a backpack," says Stephen Carattini, CEO of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, another local organization assisting with resettlement efforts. "And the housing market for affordable apartments and townhomes in Northern Virginia is very challenging."
Last Thursday in downtown Silver Spring, elected officials gathered with Muslim community leaders, refugee advocates, and local residents to formally welcome Afghan refugees to Montgomery County. County Council Member Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large) praised county residents for their commitment to diversity and inclusion.
"I'm so proud to live in a community... where we honestly acknowledge that our diversity is our strength," Albornoz told the audience.
But officials who spoke later raised concerns about refugees' ability to afford a new life in Montgomery County, where the median household income is nearly $110,000 per year. Most Afghan refugees entering the country receive $1,225 in cash benefits to start over in the U.S., said Councilmember Will Jawando (D-At Large).
"I don't know where you're living with $1,200 to go towards rent," Jawando said.
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring hovers around $1,700, according to one estimate. In D.C., it exceeds $2,000.
The State Department oversees the Special Immigrant Visa program, which Congress established in 2006 to protect Afghan and Iraqi nationals who assisted the U.S. government at war. The federal agency recently published a list of 19 cities it considers suitable to SIV holders. No locality in the D.C. area made the cut, despite the region's relatively large Afghan population. Baltimore, more than an hour from Dulles, is the closest city on the list.
A State Department spokesperson did not respond to questions about how SIV cities are selected, but provided a general statement that said individual SIV holders are placed in certain locations based on their family or social ties to an area, as well as their particular needs and characteristics. A page on the agency's website warns SIV holders that high housing costs may limit their resettlement options.
"Please be aware that the cost of living and the availability of housing can vary significantly in different locations across the United States. The Washington, D.C. metro area including Northern Virginia and some cities in California are very expensive places to live, and it can be difficult to find reasonable housing and employment," it says.
Organizations that receive federal funding to resettle Afghan refugees are relying, in part, on donations from the public to help newcomers cover rent and other basic expenses. The need is especially severe for individuals arriving with humanitarian parolee status, as opposed to SIV status, say refugee advocates. Currently, humanitarian parolees aren't eligible for the same benefits that SIV holders receive, such as short-term cash assistance, employment services, English classes, transportation, and medical help. The chaotic evacuation process that unfolded in Kabul made it impossible for many Afghan allies to obtain Special Immigrant visas, so many fled the country with limited status, says Kristin Peck, CEO of Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area.
Comparison of benefits for Afghan refugees
Table by VOA News
"That makes them very vulnerable," Peck says. "Afghan SIV holders are eligible for up to five years of employment services. That is not something that is provided for the parole population. I'm concerned about this gap that these benefits are usually able to fill."
Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area plans to serve as many as 450 refugees with humanitarian parole, though that number could increase, Peck says. Overall, tens of thousands of Afghans are expected to enter the U.S. in the coming weeks. Locally, many could be resettled in Fredericksburg, Woodbridge, and parts of Prince George's County, where housing costs are lower than they are in D.C. and the immediate suburbs, but jobs and amenities may be more difficult to access without a car.
For some Afghans, attainable housing in this region might also be a downgrade from what they're used to, says Stephen Carattini with Catholic Charities.
"They may have come from a situation where they had their own home with a garden," Carattini says. "But where they are on the income scale here, we're going to be looking for affordable apartments, and they may not be as close to D.C. as they would like."
Volunteers like Wendy Chan are trying to make up for what the federal government isn't currently providing to refugees, especially parolees. Chan's groups One Journey and NOVA Friends of Refugees have launched a survey to find local residents who can provide cash, necessities, and affordable housing to arriving Afghans. Residents' generosity has been encouraging, she says.
"We are seeing an overwhelming response in terms of housing offers," Chan says. "We have everything from people offering one or two bedrooms in their home, to individuals who provide a single-family house or a townhome that they're willing to furnish."
But Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Maryland, says more durable, long-term support is necessary — particularly to serve the humanitarian parolee population arriving here on short notice, under strained circumstances, with little time for agencies to find housing for them.
"Typically, we may have two or three weeks to a month to prepare for a refugee family. Now, we have a matter of days," Chandrasekar says.
Resettlement organizations have longstanding relationships with local landlords who can provide affordable housing options for some refugees, Chandrasekar says. They're also able to tap into homes provided by Airbnb, which has pledged to donate temporary housing to 20,000 Afghan refugees around the world.
The more quickly Afghans can access safe and stable housing, advocates say, the faster they will be able to become self-sufficient.
Abdul, the SIV holder who arrived in Northern Virginia in 2016, describes his family's first two years in the United States as stressful and exhausting. Within a few months of arriving in Alexandria, he landed a full-time job with a construction company, but he says his paychecks only covered the rent. He didn't want to rely on government assistance, so he drove for Lyft at night to support his family both in the U.S. and Afghanistan.
"For two years, I was just surviving," he says. "I did as much as I could. It cost me a lot, health-wise."
Today, Abdul and his family still live in Alexandria. He says he's upbeat about his family's future in the United States, where they are legal permanent residents, thanks to the SIV program.
"Every day, our life is getting better," he says. "I encourage others who hear my story: Work hard. Don't give up. You will get what you want."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.