Afghan refugees arrive in LA, but finding affordable housing is difficult

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When Afghan refugees arrive in SoCal, a struggle for affordable housing

In the back guest unit of a Santa Monica home, a young couple named Ahmed and Wida are recovering from months of torture after leaving Afghanistan in August.

It started with a crowded US military flight from Kabul, which they boarded after two days at the crowded airport. Ahmed taught at an American school in Kabul, a job that put him and Wida in danger after the US-backed Afghan government fell to the Taliban.

On the outward flight, they sat on the floor with more than 600 other people. Then came a stopover at a military base in Germany, then another in Virginia. They shared tight tents with dozens of other refugees.

At the end of October they finally landed in Los Angeles, where they had a stroke of luck: their resettlement agency placed them with a host family in Santa Monica who had volunteered their small but well-equipped guest studio.

“We are really grateful that they gave us this space to just feel ‘at home’ and also to relax and feel good, because I think in the last three months we had no place to … it just to call a home, ”said Ahmed. (He and Wida didn’t want their last names used to protect loved ones in Afghanistan.)

Ahmed and Wida are among a growing number of Afghan families who have arrived in Southern California in recent weeks as more refugees are released from military bases. Now there is a challenge: to find an affordable apartment for them in one of the most expensive rental markets in the country.

“There is just not enough”

One recent morning, Lilian Alba of the International Institute of Los Angeles, one of a handful of local relocation agencies, went through her family list on the way to LAX.

“We have about 60 people coming … by the end of the week it will probably be 80,” said Alba, vice president of the Agency for Immigration and Refugee Services. “All of these families will go to … hotels, Airbnb, and maybe a host family or two.”

The newcomers will “spend weeks and weeks in hotels or motels,” she said, “because there just aren’t enough.”

A young child carries his belongings as he and his family evacuated from Kabul leave Dulles International Airport.

(Anna Geldmacher)


Getty Images North America)

In addition to the lack of affordable units, landlords who lost money during the pandemic are less willing to take risks with newcomers looking for work, Alba said.

“Even the units we find we cannot secure because of the lack of proof of income, loans and co-signers,” Alba said, adding that resettlement agencies cannot act as co-signers for refugees.

Resettlement groups await more than 15,000 Afghan refugees in California. Of these, around 4,000 to 5,000 are expected to settle locally, Alba said. So far, most of it has been directed to the Sacramento area, which not only has a large Afghan community but is also cheaper.

While the agencies are trying to accommodate refugees near US connections they may have, she said, “The State Department is encouraging families to consider other locations because of the cost of living and the housing crisis we have locally. “

In an email, a US State Department spokesman wrote, “The availability and affordability of housing in many locations across the country is a key factor and limitation on the community’s ability to relocate people.”

Each newcomer receives a one-time payment of around $ 1,100. But in Los Angeles, that’s nowhere near enough for a family of four to cover the first and last month’s rent and bail for an average two-bedroom apartment.

Fill in the gaps

Resettlement groups need to act quickly. Refugees receive resettlement case management for only 90 days, which includes finding accommodation, joining public services, helping them find work and other support.

To fill the gaps as demand rises, local relocation agencies have partnered with nonprofits, foundations, churches, and community groups – anyone who can help raise funds for rental costs or act as guarantors.

Some groups have strengthened: The Weingart Foundation recently awarded grants to seven local organizations to support their resettlement efforts.

But demand continues to outstrip supply.

Orange County, which has a sizable Afghan community, has attracted some families. But the housing market there is expensive – a two-bedroom apartment can easily be rented for $ 2,600 a month – and extremely competitive, said Madelynn Hirneise, CEO of Families Forward, an Irvine-based nonprofit group at risk of homelessness Helping people.

Hirneise is working with a resettlement agency to accommodate three Afghan families in local hotels. She has a network of property owners who could help, but waiting lists for rentals many can’t.

“As much as we have these willing participants and these generous landlords, they don’t have any units to allocate,” says Hirneise, whose employees call real estate owners coldly and even drive around looking for vacancies.

“You can stay as long as you want”

Housing stability is vital for people who have experienced trauma, said Jose Serrano, director of public relations and immigration for World Relief’s Garden Grove office.

“The initial stages of relocation are just extremely difficult,” said Serrano. “You are trying to find a job, you are trying to find a place to stay. You also heal from all the traumatic experiences that you have had. “

Serrano pointed out that despite the community’s great support, many wanted to donate items such as clothing and furniture. There will be a time for this, he said, but right now the greatest need is for housing.

The woman from Santa Monica who volunteered to take Ahmed and Wida into her small guest unit is called Susan – she did not want to give her last name.

“I told them they can stay as long as they want, as long as they have to,” Susan said. “I think it will be a while before they are able to take care of themselves.”

Ahmed and Wida are still orienting themselves in LA. They took in the Pacific Ocean and soaked in the city courtesy of Susan who has taken on the role of tour guide and cultural interpreter.

“Everything is new,” said Ahmed. “For example, if you want to cross the street, you have to push the button.”

“You can’t be a guest until New Year’s Eve”

As grateful as they are to Susan and her husband, Ahmed and Wida are eager to get their own apartment.

“I would like to go into my own apartment and pay my rent myself and be self-employed and find a job,” said Ahmed. “There is a saying in my country: You must not be a guest before New Year’s Eve.”

A man and a woman have their backs to us as they stand in a glass door.  They overlook a small terrace area.  Inside, on the left, you can see the end of a glass table on which a tea kettle and a vase of pink flowers stand.

Ahmed and Wida left Afghanistan in August with little more than two clothes changes. You have ended up with a host family in Santa Monica whose relocation agency is looking for permanent accommodation for you.

(Alborz Kamalizad



He has a pending application for a special immigrant visa issued to refugees who worked on behalf of the U.S. government, and he and Wida have just been granted work permits. In addition to Ahmed’s teaching activities, they both worked in the medical field in Afghanistan and hope to find something suitable here.

And it turns out that Ahmed and Wida are only just beginning their life together: They are newly married.

“We just got married 15 days before all of this happened in Afghanistan,” Ahmed said as he and Wida looked at each other and laughed at the irony.

Although they had hoped to come to the United States in the distant future, they had not planned to begin their married life here. But they want to make the most of it.

While her husband was translating into Dari, Wida listed the three things she wanted: to find a job, to have children – and a home of her own.

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