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Afghan refugees face a dire need for affordable rental housing in high-priced Seattle

Aug. 31, 2021 Updated Tue., Aug. 31, 2021 at 7:42 p.m.

By Heidi Groover Seattle Times

Thousands of Afghan refugees evacuated in the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan are bracing for new challenges in America, countless adjustments to a new life in a new place and ongoing fear and grief for those left behind.

For refugees arriving in Seattle, add to that the sky-high cost of housing.

Seattle-area resettlement agencies say they are facing a dire need for affordable rental housing, far beyond temporary stays in hotels or local homes. Rising rents, slim supply and wary landlords make for a tight market, aid groups say.

“It’s a welcoming environment and has been for more than 40 years. Yet the housing market does not support all these other aspects of welcome,” said Nicky Smith, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Seattle.

The Seattle area is one of the most expensive places in the country to rent an apartment. Although rents in the city dipped during the pandemic, they are once again on the rise and fewer apartments are vacant. Rents for single-family homes are also climbing. Outside Seattle, in the suburbs where many refugees resettle, rents never fell.

Few apartments offer enough space for newly arriving families, and only a limited number of landlords are willing to rent to tenants without rental histories or Social Security numbers, aid groups say.

In the new effort to resettle Afghans, “housing is going to be the predominant issue,” said Greg Hope, director of the refugee resettlement office of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia. “It will be everybody’s main worry.”

One refugee who arrived in the Seattle area with his wife and children last year said he misses his spacious house in Afghanistan, where family members had their own rooms and his children could play in the yard outside.

Now, he now shares a two-bedroom apartment in Federal Way with six other family members. His cousin and family moved in “so we can share the rent burden together,” he said.

(The Seattle Times is not publishing the man’s name to protect his family members still in Afghanistan.)

After working for contractors with the Afghan and American militaries, the man received a Special Immigrant Visa, the visa offered to Afghans who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government. But he is consumed with fear for loved ones still in Afghanistan. For years, the Taliban threatened him and his family, he said, including an attack by gunmen that left him hospitalized.

“They are at risk because of me,” he said of his family. “The families that are still there, the families of those people who moved here on the SIVs – they’re really in danger.”

To landlords considering housing new refugees, he asked for patience.

“If landlords have been contacted by resettlement agencies, they should bear with them and they should know these people are new here,” he said. “Bear with them for some time. Give them space for a few months to be settled.”

Long-term challenge

Like in the 1970s, when Washington welcomed refugees after the Vietnam War, some local families have offered up space in their homes for newly arriving refugees.

But good intentions have limits. Moving into permanent housing as soon as possible helps families find stability, schools and jobs, resettlement groups say. Those arriving with family members need space.

“It’s really hard to say no to” people offering their homes, Smith said, “but that’s not a solution.”

Along with the work of screening all potential hosts, “we need something more than simply somebody saying, ‘I’ve got a spare room. A family of six can stay in it,’ ” Smith said.

In the private rental market, costs have skyrocketed since the 1970s, far outpacing household incomes. Subsidized housing often has yearslong waitlists.

The federal government funds $1,225 per refugee. “That money goes very quickly towards rent,” said Kristin Winkel, acting CEO at Jewish Family Service, which helps resettle refugees.

For refugees who arrive with their families, few rental apartments in Seattle have three bedrooms or more. The vast majority of new construction in recent years has been one-bedroom or studio apartments.

Some landlords have offered apartments. Still, “most people reaching out to us can accommodate small-scale families,” said Medard Ngueita, resettlement director at World Relief Seattle. “We are still struggling to find large apartment units to rent to large families.”

Developer Ben Maritz offered World Relief two units, the only available in his 200-unit portfolio, he said.

“We’re limited by the fact that we have very little vacancy right now,” he said. “I don’t have any family units at all. Building family housing in Seattle is really challenging.”

Resettlement agencies typically help to cover the first several months of rent and help refugees find jobs. But refugees often arrive with no social security number, rental history or credit score, making it challenging to find a willing landlord, resettlement agencies say. They may find themselves competing with other renters in high-paid tech jobs.

To open up more housing for newly arriving refugees, World Relief is “asking the community members who own spaces – that could be Airbnbs, could be mother-in-law units, could be a person who owns an apartment complex – to take some of their units and rent below the housing market [rate],” Ngueita said.

The full scope of the need is still unknown. World Relief Seattle has resettled 229 people since last October, most of them from Afghanistan, with more people expected, Ngueita said.

During the next year, Hope estimates the Diocese will resettle about 340 refugees, including those from Afghanistan. Jewish Family Service expects to settle 600 people in the coming year, including at least 150 people from Afghanistan and Iraq.

“The future is very uncertain at this point,” Winkel said.

Rising housing costs could also make it harder for refugees to move to areas where other people from their home countries have already settled.

With rents climbing in South King County, a hub of many refugee communities, the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia may look toward Everett and Tacoma for more affordable apartments, Hope said.

“It will test the limits of what we can do in an expensive housing market,” he said.

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