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Afghan Refugees Left ‘Hoping For A Miracle’ As U.S. Housing Solutions Come Up Short

Jeena Osmani will celebrate her 25th birthday this weekend at the Parkview Gardens apartment community in Riverdale, Maryland, where she lives with her mother and works as a leasing employee. 

Osmani has aged far more than a year since her last birthday — along with her mother, she fled Afghanistan in August as the Taliban took swift and stunning control of the country. 

She remembers waiting for hours to enter the airport, unsure if they would manage to find a flight out of the country, before finally getting on a plane to Qatar. From there, they flew to Germany and then to a military base in Texas, where they lived for three months before being resettled in Prince George's County.

Jeena Osmani, a 24-year-old Afghan refugee who arrived in the U.S. in August, is now living and working as a leasing employee for the Parkview Gardens apartment community in Maryland.

"It was stressful and it was too much for me," she said of the experience of fleeing Afghanistan. "But it was life-saving, so I am grateful for that."

Osmani's landlord and employer is one of the only property managers in the county that borders Washington, D.C., to the north, east and south willing to rent to refugees today, multiple sources said. But his portfolio is nearly full, and far more help will be needed from housing providers in the D.C. area and across the country as the refugee resettlement efforts continue. 

More than 76,000 Afghan refugees have entered the U.S. over the last six months, the largest refugee influx in decades. Thousands of them are still looking for housing, an effort that is especially challenging in today's market as many cities and counties across the U.S. struggle with a housing shortage

In the D.C. area, one of the epicenters of the resettlement effort, more than 5,000 refugees have already been resettled. As of Feb. 8, 4,830 refugees have been resettled in Virginia, 1,829 in Maryland, and five in D.C., a State Department spokesperson told Bisnow.  

The challenge of finding permanent housing is compounded by the circumstances under which most refugees arrive in the U.S.

While they have financial support from the government and resettlement agencies, plus whatever savings they were able to bring with them, most refugees don't have a Social Security number, a rental history, credit score or a steady income. That type of documentation is typically required by landlords to rent an apartment. 

"It really is reliant on landlords stepping up, whether they’re renting a single-family home or an apartment building, and being willing to work with these families in a different way than they traditionally do," said Prince George's County Council Member Dannielle Glaros, whose office has been coordinating efforts to resettle refugees. 

Two organization heads who have been helping to resettle refugees told Bisnow that most apartment owners have been unwilling to relax their rules to aid refugees. 

"Affordable housing is challenging to find," said Homes Not Borders Executive Director Laura Thompson Osuri, whose organization assists in refugee resettlement. "When you don’t have rental history, job history, credit history in the U.S., a lot of landlords, and I understand, will not want to rent to you."

Solutions in Hometown Connections founder Merritt Groeschel, whose organization is currently working to resettle six families in Maryland, said the problem she has run into isn't a lack of available housing, but rather landlords who are unwilling to provide the necessary flexibility. 

"If you’re looking to have them qualify for a lease in the way a family normally would, it’s just not possible, so it’s very easy for people to say 'no'," Groeschel said. 

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken meets with resettled Afghan refugees in Alexandria, Virginia, in December, 2021.

While working to resettle an Afghan refugee family in Maryland in December, Groeschel said she sent a message to local religious leaders, and she heard back from a member of a synagogue who had a Silver Spring apartment they were willing to rent to a refugee at cost. But she said that type of success is rare.

"You're hoping for a miracle every time," Groeschel said. "I need that like 1,000 times. It’s really challenging because there’s not a fallback for these families as far as housing goes."

Glaros, Groeschel and Osuri, who all work in Maryland, each said there is one individual apartment manager who has welcomed nearly all of the refugees in Prince George's County: David Mendick. 

Mendick, who spoke to Bisnow Thursday morning on the phone from the Parkview Gardens community, said he has primarily rented to refugees over the last six months, and he has hired dozens of them, including Osmani, to help manage his properties. He said he manages nearly 3,000 apartments across nine properties on behalf of separate owners.

"If the State Department is bringing in refugees, and when they get here nobody’s going to house them, that seems ridiculous," Mendick said. "To me, it's a completely positive thing to do to help people in utter distress and to give them their first home in the U.S."

Mendick, a UK native who immigrated to the U.S., said he has been renting to refugees in Maryland for around 30 years.

"We’ve never seen anything like this before," Mendick said of the Afghan refugee crisis. 

After he saw the images on television of the airlift out of the Kabul airport, Mendick said he stopped leasing apartments to the general public in order to maximize the number of units available for refugees. But the 3,000 or so apartments he manages were nearly fully occupied, so he was limited to offering those that have turned over as people move out. 

"I spoke to the directors of [resettlement organizations] a number of times and let them know that’s what we intended to do, and we did it," Mendick said. "So apartments that easily could have been occupied remained empty for days, weeks or maybe even longer than that."

Employees hanging a 'We Welcome Refugees' sign at the Kings Square Apartments community in Maryland.

Osmani said living at the Parkview Gardens community has been "outstanding," and she hopes more apartment owners and managers follow Mendick's example. 

"The people who newly arrived to America have nowhere to go," she said. "If more landlords and more people start doing this, that would be amazing."

While he stopped leasing to the general public for months, Mendick said he has recently begun to lease one-bedroom apartments to the public again, because organizations told him that most refugees are coming as families who need multiple bedrooms. The size of refugee families looking to live together has presented its own issue for resettlement groups, as many available apartments are one- or two-bedroom units. 

"Often families from Afghanistan are larger than your typical American family, and that creates a struggle, because I’ve found particularly in Montgomery County, landlords are very quick to say 'I can’t have more than two people per bedroom,' even though that’s not actually the code," Groeschel said. "That’s a barrier because if you have family of seven, you can’t move to a three-bedroom apartment if there’s a two-person-per-bedroom rule."

Mendick said that to his knowledge, he is still the only manager renting to refugees in the Prince George's County area, a point that Council Member Glaros confirmed. Mendick said he has been willing to forgo steps like credit checks and requiring income statements, a decision that he said larger companies aren't willing to make. 

"The whole industry, more so now than it was 30 years ago, is very structured, it’s very corporate," Mendick said. "You have to do certain things a certain way for everybody. I chose a different way of doing it a long time ago. If you're going to make the commitment to help refugees, you make the commitment, and then you figure out how to make it work."

Acumen Cos. Chairman Abiud Zerubabel, an Ethiopian immigrant whose company owns around 2,000 apartments in the mid-Atlantic and Los Angeles, said he hasn't been approached by any resettlement organizations about housing refugees, but if he were, he would "definitely" find a way to work with them.

"When you have 40,000 units, that may be difficult to relate all the way down at a tenant level, but when you’re a boutique owner and somebody tells you their story, they say, ‘Here’s the situation, will you approve these tenants?’ You could make relaxations on the credit history," Zerubabel said. "But also I’m not saying corporate, institutional landlords could not do the same thing. I’m sure they could put in place the same loosening metrics to take [refugees] on board."

National Multifamily Housing Council President Doug Bibby, whose organization has many large, corporate landlords as members, said in a written statement that NMHC has encouraged owners and managers across the country to engage in the effort to support refugees. 

"However, there are real and significant legal, bureaucratic and market challenges," Bibby added. "It’s an unfortunate reality that this resettlement effort coincides with historically low vacancy rates. 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.” 

Many refugees have been in temporary housing camps on military bases across the U.S. for months, but the federal government has been moving to shut down those camps by mid-February in an effort to resettle the refugees into communities, The Washington Post reported last week.

A lack of available housing has led many refugee families to move from the military bases into hotel rooms, multiple sources confirmed to Bisnow. These hotels, typically extended-stay properties with kitchens in the rooms, are intended to be a temporary solution as refugees look for permanent housing.

But sources say the arrangement can make it difficult for refugees to land a job, because they don't know where their permanent home will be located, and resettlement groups say it is harder for them to provide services to hotels. The fees for the hotels are typically paid for by resettlement groups, which receive funding from the federal government. 

"They want to get them off the bases 'cause it was too expensive, but you know what’s more expensive? Them staying at hotels, and it's chaos," Osuri said. "They were centralized, it was easier for servicers to get to people on bases. Now they’re scattered about in hotels across the area."

Volunteers with Homes Not Borders setting up beds for an Afghan refugee family.

The federal government provides a stipend of up to $2,275 to each refugee that is intended to cover housing and other living expenses over a three-month period as they look for a job, the Washington Post and others have reported. The stipends aren't adjusted based on the cost of living in certain regions, Groeschel said. 

"It’s really supposed to cover all of their expenses for 90 days, and that’s where you see struggle of this area with a high cost of living," Groeschel said. "That amount is set by Congress; it’s a federal amount. So families here are receiving the same amount of money as families in Nebraska, and there’s a huge difference in what it will cover."

Groeschel said she has been working with a family of seven people to find housing in Maryland. They began with a budget of $1,600 per month but after being unable to find a landlord willing to rent to them, she said they are now open to paying up to $2,100 per month. 

"In the case of this particular family, there is a church congregation willing to help them, willing to co-sign the lease with them," she said. "Even with that, they're still having trouble finding something."

Council Member Glaros, speaking in a joint interview with Groeschel, said that the problem isn't that there is a lack of apartments available at $2,100 per month.

"There are definitely places out there that could rent at that amount, the challenge is the history, and that this is someone who doesn't yet have a job," she said. "So a landlord has to take a gut instinct that this would be a family that's worth taking that risk for."

For landlords willing to take a risk and hope that refugees will be able to find a job, resettlement group leaders said that it has typically worked out well, given the current labor market. 

"They usually get a low-wage job," Osuri said. "There's a lack of housing. There's not a lack of low-wage jobs."

The influx of refugees over the last six months has overwhelmed resettlement groups in part because they had scaled back their operations dramatically during President Donald Trump's administration, when refugee admission caps were reduced to historic lows

Last year's refugee resettlement goal, set by the Trump administration, was 15,000, while this year, President Joe Biden's administration increased it to 125,000. That figure doesn't include the more than 70,000 Afghan refugees who were brought in under a special program launched in August, Operation Allies Welcome, according to the International Rescue Committee.

The IRC, one of the largest refugee resettlement groups, told Bisnow in an emailed statement that the scale of the Afghan refugee evacuation was "unprecedented in recent decades."

The organization said that in the year ending Sept. 30, it resettled 4,000 total refugees and holders of Special Immigrant Visas, which are given to those who assisted U.S. military in Afghanistan or Iraq and provide greater government assistance. This year, it is resettling 22,000 refugees and SIV holders. In Baltimore alone, it said it has resettled more than 500 refugees since Oct. 1. 

An IRC spokesperson said that the current housing shortage in many parts of the U.S. is making it harder to find permanent housing for these refugees.  

"Typical vacancy rates with our housing partners, both in Baltimore and across the U.S., are significantly lower than [in] past years," the spokesperson said. "This means that affordable housing takes longer to identify, and when identified, that there is less time available to secure it for refugee families."

The challenge for resettlement groups in finding permanent housing isn't going away, as the number of refugees entering the U.S. is rising. 

The Biden administration next month plans to begin bringing in additional groups of refugees who have remained in Qatar under a new, expedited program that aims to process about 2,000 refugees and SIV holders per month, the Washington Post reported last week. As of that report, there were still about 7,000 Afghans on U.S. military bases waiting to be resettled, federal officials told the Post. 

"It’s definitely a big issue, and I think we're going to run into it a lot more now," said Homes Not Borders Family Service Manager Manizha Azizi. "The federal government made it clear they want these families off bases, and resettlement agencies are trying to find housing." 

Azizi said she knows of eight hotels in Maryland that are housing refugees, and she has seen families of more than 10 people squeezed into small hotel rooms.

"These families are desperate, they are crying out for help," she said. "I wish these landlords and people would come together and help with this. Otherwise, we’re going to end up with a bunch of homeless families in dire need of help."