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Biden's 100,000-Refugee Pledge Faces Hurdles Amid U.S. Housing Shortage

The United States plans to accept up to 100,000 refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, President Joe Biden announced Thursday, but finding housing for them could be a monumental task.

A delegation including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau visiting a Ukrainian refugee reception center in Poland on March 5.

The impending influx of Ukrainian refugees comes as resettlement groups are still working to house the more than 70,000 Afghan refugees who came to the U.S. and are continuing to arrive following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The efforts are made more challenging by the shortage of housing in many U.S. markets and the unwillingness of some landlords to rent to refugees. 

"With 100,000 refugees, no one knows at this point when they’re coming or what the government’s plan is, but we all agree that there needs to be a plan," said Kathie O'Callaghan, founder of New York-based nonprofit Hearts and Homes for Refugees.

"Housing is the greatest challenge," she said. "It's a challenge for this country for people who live here. Putting [Afghan] refugees in affordable housing has been a massive undertaking, and long-term I don’t think it’s going to have a great outcome. I don’t know how we’ll do it."

The U.S. has resettled around 72,000 Afghan refugees, including more than 600 who have arrived in the past two weeks, a State Department spokesperson told Bisnow in an email. Those refugees were admitted under an emergency program that wasn't counted as part of the nation's annual cap for refugee admittance, which Biden set at 125,000 for this fiscal year. 

The degree of difficulty of the Ukrainian resettlement effort will depend on how many refugees ultimately come to the U.S. and how quickly they arrive. The State Department spokesperson said that many Ukrainian refugees may prefer to stay in nearby European countries in hopes of returning to Ukraine soon, but the administration does recognize that "some number" of refugees will want to come to the U.S.  

The Biden administration has multiple avenues through which it can accept refugees, including the longer-term process of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and the more immediate route of humanitarian parole. Refugees admitted this year through the USRAP process would be counted as part of the 125,000-refugee maximum, the State Department spokesperson said, but that will likely not be the case for most of the Ukrainian refugees. 

The State Department expects the majority of Ukrainian refugees will arrive through the more expeditious pathways, but it is difficult to estimate how soon refugees will arrive. 

Bringing more refugees in through the accelerated processes would mean that the total number of refugees admitted this year could be higher, and the refugees could begin arriving sooner, putting further strain on the system of housing refugees that has already been overwhelmed by the Afghan crisis. 

"There have been so many moved in, and the affordable housing options the resettlement agencies generally tap into are tapped out," said Laura Thompson Osuri, executive director of refugee assistance nonprofit Homes Not Borders. "They’re filled up."

The expedited processes, like humanitarian parole, give preference to refugees who have family in the U.S., but nonprofit heads say that doesn't necessarily mean they have a long-term housing solution.

A rally in support of Ukraine in New York City's Times Square.

Many Ukrainian immigrant communities are concentrated in dense cities — New York City has roughly 60,000 Ukrainian immigrants — and residents may not have extra bedrooms to spare. O'Callaghan said resettlement groups ran into this issue with Afghan refugees. 

"Many of the Afghan humanitarian parole cases came in, and many have families here," O'Callaghan said. "But what we saw was the families said, 'Yes, we’ll support you,' but then the families come with seven or eight kids, and the family ties say, 'This is great, but we can’t keep you in our two-bedroom home, so find somewhere else.'"

The number of apartments available for refugees is limited by the country's unprecedented housing shortage. In December, nationwide apartment occupancy hit 97%, the highest level on record, according to RealPage data. 

Beyond the availability issue, refugees also have a harder time finding landlords who will lease to them than the typical renter. Most landlords require documentation such as credit checks, proof of employment history and rental history, paperwork that refugees fleeing war-torn countries often don't have. 

Resettlement groups said that most landlords have been unwilling to relax those rules for Afghan refugees. Solutions in Hometown Connections founder Merritt Groeschel, whose organization has resettled Afghan refugees in Maryland, said she expects to run into the same issue with refugees from Ukraine. 

"At the end of the day it’s the same problem," she said. "The Ukrainian refugees will also not have the credit history. They will also not have the employment history, just like an Afghan refugee wouldn’t. So if it's a landlord who really wants to use their traditional method of doing a credit check and background check, then that’s still going to be a challenge."

In many cities and counties, resettlement groups have relationships with a limited number of landlords or property managers who they know are willing to relax their restrictions for refugees. But they say those properties have now largely filled up from accepting Afghan refugees. 

In Prince George's County, Maryland, resettlement groups and a local elected official told Bisnow last month that there is only one property manager who consistently rents to refugees: David Mendick. 

"We are completely full," Mendick told Bisnow Friday.

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

Mendick, who manages nearly 3,000 apartments across nine properties, stopped leasing to traditional renters last year in order to maximize the number of units he had available for Afghan refugees. He said he is still waiting to learn more about the timing of Ukrainian refugee arrivals in the U.S., but he is preparing to use that same strategy. 

"If we heard they were going to come the traditional route through the refugee agencies, then we’d probably do what we had to do with the Afghan surge, and we’d have to shut down operations and build up an inventory again," Mendick said. 

In Westchester County, New York, where O'Callaghan's organization is based, she said one college has accepted refugees in empty student housing units. And she said she has a small cohort of landlords who reliably rent to refugees. 

"Those landlords are in our camp and they will help us when they can," she said. "The issue is cultivating more refugee-friendly landlords and educating them about refugees and renting to refugees who have a backstop of support."

She said she wishes more landlords understood the reliability of renting to refugees.

The families receive a stipend from the federal government intended to cover living expenses for three months. Organizations like Hearts and Homes for Refugees also help refugees pay rent in the first few months of their time in the country. During that period, the organization also helps refugees find employment, and O'Callaghan said they are typically able to land jobs within three months. 

Mendick said that refugees are reliable renters and he thinks more landlords should relax their rules to lease to them. 

"It’s not in my mind about, ‘How the hell are they gonna pay the rent?’" Mendick said. "Refugees are extremely resilient and they find a way to survive. They survived coming from a war-torn country. They’ll sure as hell find a way to survive in the United States."

While landlords could be more flexible in their requirements, there is also more the federal government could do to give them the confidence to rent to refugees, according to nonprofit groups and industry associations. 

"The government needs to step in and give some sort of guarantee," Osuri said. "Some sort of insurance guarantees to landlords to make them more willing to rent to them, or maybe some sort of tax break if they rent at a discount, or something like that to incentivize more landlords to offer more affordable housing and to actually offer housing to refugees."

State governments could also help by accelerating the processes that refugees use to apply for benefits, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Groeschel said. She said the groups that assist refugees are facing staffing shortages, and the lengthy processes of applying for state assistance programs take up valuable time that they could be using to find housing. 

National Multifamily Housing Council CEO Doug Bibby said in a statement that the organization encourages its members, which include many of the nation's largest landlords, to engage in the effort to support Ukrainian refugees. But he said they do face "significant legal, bureaucratic and market challenges."

"This effort, sadly coming only months after a similar emigration of Afghan refugees, arrives at a time of historically low vacancy rates and unparalleled housing demand," Bibby said in the statement. “Lawmakers at all levels of government should consider what steps they can take to ease unnecessary requirements and provide those looking for housing with badly needed financial support over the short and long term, giving housing providers the confidence necessary to extend housing options.”