When Jill Galante heard from a local refugee caseworker that his agency expected their city would receive 800 Afghan families before December, her stomach dropped.
“I told him, ‘Well, we don’t have the housing for 800 families. We’re just creating a homeless population,’” recalled Galante, a volunteer who since 2016 has led grassroots efforts to stock apartments for refugees resettling in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I told them that.’”
The U.S.’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan left thousands of Afghans fleeing the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in late August. U.S. officials say they have evacuated more than 65,000 Afghans; since mid-August, about 24,000 have arrived in the U.S. Resettlement agencies are expecting at least 50,000 individuals.
But rising housing costs around the country, particularly amid the pandemic and another summer of wildfires, have made finding homes for newly arrived refugees harder than ever. In Virginia, resettlement agencies say an increasing number of families are being forced to spend over half their income on housing. In Massachusetts, rising rental costs mean that the International Institute of New England can only accept families with at least three adults who can begin working right away.
And in California, some organizers and resettlement agencies say the brutal housing market is creating a dangerous environment where landlords are exploiting desperate refugees and volunteers make up the backbone of the inadequate resettlement efforts.
“Where is the plan to adequately house?” Galante asked. “Why are we saying ‘welcome home’ when there’s no home for them to walk into? It almost seems cruel. I’m really hoping the government is stepping in with a piece that none of us know about.”
Galante is the lead organizer of a local Facebook group, “Helping El Cajon Refugees,” whose volunteers have gone from finding and preparing two apartments weekly to two daily. Her team usually has weeks of notice to make arrangements. Now, they have almost none.
Still, resettlement agencies are calling her seeking housing, hoping against hope that she may have found a needle in the proverbial haystack.
The San Diego area has significant Afghan, Syrian, and Chaldean Iraqi refugee populations, making it an attractive location for many evacuating Afghans. But many caseworkers Galante knows advise refugees to build their new lives elsewhere.
“They say, ‘Don’t. This is a very tough place to be resettled.’ Nobody can get housing here.”
When the U.S. State Department published its list of 19 recommended resettlement locations for Afghans who have received Special Immigrant Visas, not a single city from either Virginia or California was included. Instead, officials warned applicants that even if refugees have family or friends there, the states are “very expensive places to live, and it can be difficult to find reasonable housing and employment.”
That’s an especially painful reality for the strong Afghan diasporas living in California and in Northern Virginia, who hope to help evacuees build new lives.
The 2019 American Community Survey found that some 64,500 of the estimated 144,000 people of Afghan ancestry in the U.S. reside in California. The San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, and northern Virginia are home to the country’s largest Afghan American populations, many of whom arrived in the 1980s as refugees following the Soviet invasion. That influx birthed “Little Kabul,” an area in Fremont, California, replete with Afghan restaurants and shops.
“Considering we have such a huge community here already, to have so many of them be shipped off to places like Ohio or Wisconsin is entirely disheartening,” said Mirriam Seddiq, an Afghan lawyer who has spent the past several weeks coordinating truckloads of donations to refugees in the Washington, D.C metro area through the Komak Foundation.
“This area is expensive,” Seddiq said. “We’ve raised money, but we don’t have enough money to house people in this area.”
While most one-bedroom apartments in the area cost at least $1,200, many of the families arriving will need at least two or three bedrooms, grassroots organizers said. Landlords are often unwilling to accept tenants without rental histories or social security numbers. And the free and discounted temporary housing AirBnb has offered in its new partnership with resettlement agencies, through which the company is funding temporary housing for 20,000 new Afghan refugees across the U.S., is only a stopgap measure.
“I don’t think that there’s any real mechanism for providing long-term housing,” Seddiq said. “I don’t know how you can find housing for these people considering the numbers — 20,000, 50,000, 100,000, depending on who you talk to — if you can’t find housing for Americans who are homeless.”
All this has led to vulnerable refugees being placed in situations that are “unlivable and unsustainable,” Galante said.
Several families in the San Diego area have been placed in motels, though even those are often booked with people fighting the West Coast wildfires. One family of six people is paying $130 nightly for three weeks in a room without any kitchen or laundry access, Galante said. Another evacuee was forced to spend $1,400 for a week in an AirBnb. One family of six was forced to stay illegally on the floor of another refugee family of five’s two-bedroom apartment, leading to both families being threatened with eviction. As a last resort, her network found two San Diego homeowners willing to take in a refugee family.
Long-term solutions are scarce, but there may be some hope on the horizon. Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state will be “a place of refuge” for Afghans fleeing their homeland. If approved, his proposal would make $16.7 million available to provide cash assistance to refugees who do not qualify for federal refugee benefits and public assistance programs.
Many families are arriving on humanitarian parole status, a status used for emergency immigration cases but which comes without Supplemental Security Income, food stamps, employment assistance, and medical service. The State Department is drafting an Afghan Parolee Support Program to assist humanitarian parolees with publicly funded housing, transport, food, clothing, legal aid, and other services.
Seddiq and Galante say securing a stable, safe and sustainable situation for all evacuees will still need a more structured solution. Many organizers have called for landlords and property managers to drop rental criteria, such as income and credit requirements, and for the federal eviction moratorium to be renewed.
In the meantime, local volunteers, particularly young Afghan Americans who have formed rapid response WhatsApp and Facebook groups, have been left to fill in the gaps. These include Hussain for Humanity, which has mobilized hundreds of volunteers in Virginia and raised over $10,000 to aid in the refugee crisis, as well as Seddiq’s Komak Foundation.
“What’s crazy is that what we’re doing is necessary,” Seddiq said. “But they evacuated all these people, and they have nowhere to go. So we’re just trying to do what we can.”
Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet that centers the people, places and issues currently underreported by national media.