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Landlords Help Ease Refugee Housing Crisis By Bending The Rules

Images of war and desperate humanitarian crises have softened the hearts — and background check policies — of landlords across the country this year as they have rented apartments to refugees in numbers that have pleasantly surprised resettlement groups.

Many property owners have loosened their policies around income and credit documentation, making the process of finding homes for the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Afghanistan and Ukraine for the U.S. smoother than expected even as the country faces a dire housing shortage, refugee resettlement leaders told Bisnow.

Five landlords who have leased to refugees this year, ranging from small private investors to firms with thousands of units under management, told Bisnow that the risk of relaxing policies has been worth it. They have found refugees to be reliable renters and have offered more of their units over the course of this year, a trend that has helped resettlement groups place refugees in homes when they arrive and avoid what could have been a disaster scenario.

Employees hanging a 'We Welcome Refugees' sign at the Kings Square Apartments community in Maryland, managed by David Mendick.

“It’s not as desperate as I would have expected at this time, and I think it’s because more landlords are opening up,” said Laura Thompson Osuri, executive director of refugee assistance nonprofit Homes Not Borders. “Without that it would definitely be a problem.”

After Russia invaded Ukraine in Februrary, President Joe Biden pledged to accept 100,000 refugees fleeing the war — and that number of people came in less than five months. The Department of Homeland Security confirmed to CBS News in late July that the government had received more than 100,000 Ukrainian arrivals, adding that the number “was never a cap.”

The length of the war in Ukraine has increased the need to find long-term housing solutions for refugees. Now more than six months since the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears poised to prolong the war, announcing Wednesday he would mobilize as many as 300,000 reservists into military service after suffering a series of setbacks. 

More than 50,000 of the Ukrainians arriving in the U.S. have done so through a program in which refugees are sponsored by private citizens, typically family members or friends, CBS news reported last week. Experts said that these sponsors either house the refugees, or if they don’t have space, they help them find housing, reducing the strain on resettlement groups. 

That has left tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees having to search for housing in U.S. markets with historically low levels of availability, and doing so amid the ongoing Afghan refugee crisis.

More than 80,000 Afghan refugees have arrived in the country under a new program initiated after the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, and 98% of them had found long-term housing as of last month, a State Department spokesperson said in an email.

These refugees have been able to find housing in part because landlords have changed their approach. Apartment owners typically have policies that require applicants to show proof of income, rental history and other credit measures, and experts said most of them were previously unwilling to make exceptions to those policies for refugees who weren’t able to provide that paperwork. 

But throughout this year, amid a wave of public support for refugees and increased financial support from the government and nonprofit groups, some landlords have become more flexible. 

“Over the past year, there definitely have been more landlords willing to rent to Afghans and other refugees than there have been in the past 10 or 15 years,” said Merritt Groeschel, founder of Solutions in Hometown Connections. “I think it’s just because there was a lot of publicity.”

That publicity led Vivek Kumar to act. The owner of eight buildings in the D.C. area, he said he began renting to refugees one year ago after he saw the images of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

“It was on a Sunday, I heard on the news about all these refugees coming in and the housing problem,” he said. “I just started sending emails to all the resettlement agencies.”

Afghan refugees evacuating their country on a U.S. aircraft in August 2021.

Kumar soon leased eight bedrooms in a Hyattsville, Maryland, apartment building he owns to refugees with assistance from the Lutheran Social Services resettlement agency. He said he has had to deal with some issues, including late rent payments, but overall it has been a positive experience. 

“I’d like to continue because this is my way of paying it forward,” Kumar said. “I came here as an immigrant myself … I know what they’re going through.”

Barry Nesson, the owner of several small apartment buildings in New York, also rented to his first refugee family last September in a Yonkers apartment building. He later leased two more units in that building to refugee families.

“I got a benefit, I got rent, so it wasn’t on the highest order of charitable giving,” he said. “But I was happy to rent to them knowing they needed it and it would be a service to them.”

The organization that supported those refugee families, Hearts and Homes for Refugees, guaranteed the rent for a limited period of time, Nesson said. This gave him the confidence to lease to the families even though they didn’t have a steady income, rental history or other paperwork that landlords typically require. 

“You can have a 100-page lease agreement, but it’s only as good as the people behind it, and there were good people behind it, that was my sense of it,” he said. “There’s always risk in life. You have to be prepared to take some risk, and it just seems like it was the right thing to do.”

Hearts and Homes founder and President Kathie O’Callaghan said her New York-based group often provides refugees with a security deposit and two months of rent to help them secure a home. She said it also works with them to find employment so refugees can continue paying rent after that. The last 13 months have been “nonstop” for agencies like hers, O’Callaghan said, and she said she has seen landlords who rent to refugees gain the confidence to come back and offer more units. 

“What we’ve seen is the landlords who have had experience resettling refugees and giving it a try, see the track record and rent again to the refugees that we resettle,” she said. “We’ve built a stable of landlords that believe in our work.”

Some large landlords that had leased to refugees before 2021 say they have provided more units for the fleeing families this year, and they have seen more of their peers follow suit. 

The Enclave Silver Spring Apartments in the D.C. suburbs, a complex that has rented to Ukrainian refugees this year.

Osuri and Groeschel, whose organizations are both based in Maryland, each separately pointed to the 1,119-unit Enclave complex in Silver Spring as one that has been especially welcoming of refugees this year. The complex is managed and partially owned by Rose Valley Capital. 

Rose Valley Capital Director of Property Management Elvira Arias told Bisnow that the complex has leased between 10 and 15 units to Ukrainian refugees this year. She said it isn’t the first time Rose Valley has rented to refugees — it previously provided housing for those who had fled Afghanistan and Iraq — but the company heard from more nonprofit organizations this year and wanted to help in the resettlement efforts. 

She said Rose Valley typically requires renters to prove they have monthly income equal to three times the rent payment, but in cases where a resettlement agency has agreed to guarantee the rent, they have relaxed those requirements.

“Whenever we’re looking at a resident we’re going to do background checks, we’re going to do financial checks, and if there’s any piece that doesn’t fit, there’s usually some sort of format that we can still take them through the path to an approval,” Arias said. 

Finding jobs for refugees is a critical step to make sure they can make their rent payments, and corporate giants Amazon and Blackstone have announced commitments this week to hire thousands of refugees.

Blackstone, which committed to hire 2,000 refugees, is one of the largest owners of apartments and single-family homes in the U.S. A spokesperson for Blackstone told Bisnow the company is working on the issue of providing housing for refugees but declined to comment further. 

Cities across the country face a housing shortage, but in red-hot markets like South Florida where rents and housing prices have skyrocketed over the last two years, it has been harder to find landlords to lease to refugees. 

Kristen Bloom, executive director of South Florida-based Refugee Assistance Alliance, described a much more difficult process of finding housing for families than her counterparts in the D.C. and New York regions. 

“It’s been a nightmare,” she said. “It’s not for lack of trying, just that this housing market is insane.”

She said most landlords who have previously rented to refugees have increased their rents substantially and have favored tenants with more reliable incomes and credit histories. When a unit does become available at a lower rent for refugees, she said it is typically snapped up immediately. 

“We’ve heard of different landlords here and there, but it’s almost like a secret network, like ‘Oh, you know this landlord that offers discounted rent, oh my gosh we want to talk to them,’ and then once word gets out, they’re inundated,” she said. 

The hot housing market has led many refugees that Bloom’s group works with to leave the South Florida area and instead look to other parts of the country, even ones also known for having high housing costs. 

“We have so many clients who are moving out of this area, even to California, to seek lower cost of living, and it’s like, ‘What? California has an extremely high cost of living,’” she said. “It’s just so unfortunate to see so many of our clients leaving, because we feel like they strengthen our community, and it’s sad to see them being priced out.”

One of the largest landlords in the mid-Atlantic, Southern Management Cos. began renting to refugees in 2012, said Lynn Phillips, the firm’s director of business development, resident relations and communication. Phillips said she remembers hearing from resettlement groups at the time that were looking to house refugees.

“Southern had set policies of how we do things, and we were finding that we were not able to work with them with the policies that we had at the time. The biggest thing was income,” Phillips said. “What we were able to come up with was if they were working with specific organizations, if they had been vetted through those organizations, we were able to use the letters from those organizations as the income.”

The Bayvue apartment community in Northern Virginia has rented to refugees since 2012, according to its owner, Southern Management.

The Vienna, Virginia-based firm, which has a 25,000-unit portfolio, began renting to refugees at its Bayvue Apartments property in Woodbridge, Virginia, and it later expanded that program to communities in Alexandria and Annandale, Phillips said. She said she has heard other landlords this year begin to consider renting to refugees for the first time. 

Last month, Phillips said she participated in a conference call hosted by the National Apartment Association in which representatives from Refugee Housing Solutions answered questions from landlords about how to work with refugee groups. 

“You could tell it was new to some of the landlords, they seemed eager to learn more about it,” Phillips said. 

NAA Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Greg Brown, in a statement provided to Bisnow by a spokesperson, said the organization “continues to promote refugee resettlement” by sharing information with members on how to get involved and by providing data and insights to refugee resettlement organizations.  

Phillips said she has sensed a change in attitude among the landlord community over the last two years. 

“Sometimes the industry is a little robotic and people only know what they’ve been doing,” she said. “I think Covid made a lot of people see things differently and try to be more creative and open-minded.”