The images and videos are heart-rending. Families huddled together, sitting on tarmacs, pressed together in cargo planes, or shedding tears for friends and family left behind as they first set foot on American soil.
With the United States expected to welcome tens of thousands of Afghan refugees in the coming months—all of whom will need housing—real estate professionals are wondering if they can put their particular skills to work during the crisis.
The answer is a resounding yes, according to Ann O’Brien, who helps with the complex, multilayered refugee resettlement process working for IRIS, a non-profit in New Haven, Connecticut.
“[Real estate agents] know everybody in town,” O’Brien tells RISMedia. “They could be absolutely instrumental in bringing all of the key parts that are needed.”
As the crisis grows and the urgency of getting people out of Afghanistan increases after recent terrorist attacks on the Kabul airport, there will be a continued and urgent need for communities to step up, with tremendous challenges still facing these families as they attempt to rebuild their lives in a new place.
The Front Lines
Larry Tobin works with The Shapiro Foundation, a philanthropic organization focused on refugee issues worldwide. He says that about 10,000 refugees were expected to land in a handful of states on Aug. 25 and 26. Most will be staying for about two weeks in military bases in Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin and New Jersey. Thousands more are expected in the coming weeks and months—though timing and numbers remain a day-to-day uncertainty.
After they are vetted and screened for health issues, the displaced will be cleared and assigned to a resettlement agency like IRIS. At that point, they will need to find housing, jobs and everything else needed to support their lives.
According to O’Brien, the process of welcoming people who are fleeing violence or persecution has always relied heavily on the contributions of volunteer members of the community, assisting in various official or unofficial capacities.
But as tens of thousands of Afghans seek safety in the U.S., obstacles to finding housing have been put in sharper focus, as even modest rental opportunities remain highly competitive across the country.
Tobin, who is currently working out of Boston, says that many small NGO or non-profits are skeleton-crew, underfunded operations that can’t afford to hire someone who specializes in housing.
“The single biggest bottleneck we’re seeing in every place around the country right now is…rental units are not available,” he says.
Nearly every landlord currently has an extensive waitlist, and many shy away from a prospective tenant who has no credit history and no job, which is the situation essentially all refugees are in when they arrive. Even when the NGOs are offering to co-sign leases or even fully subsidize several months rent, many are still hesitant.
“When this is a landlord’s market, it makes it even more challenging. So it really is going to go relationship by relationship,” Tobin says. “They have ways of doing business.”
Kerri True-Funk is the director of the Des Moines office for the U.S. Committee for Refugee and Immigrants (USCRI). Her organization has established relationships with a number of landlords and has been relatively successful at finding rental housing in the community.
According to True-Funk, what they need help with is when things get more complicated when a family of 12 arrives needing a five- or six-bedroom living space, or members have mobility issues or special medical needs.
“We really struggle to try and find housing [for special cases], because of course it needs to be safe and clean and be a healthy environment, because so many families are coming with kids,” she says. “The larger the families, the more of those barriers there are.”
Refugee families, and particularly those coming from Afghanistan are often larger, with four children being average or even on the low side, according to Tobin.
This is where knowledge of the local real estate market becomes incredibly valuable. Real estate professionals can help identify apartments or areas that are walking distance from schools, have access to green spaces or are generally child-friendly, suggests True-Funk.
To successfully settle refugees, organizations like IRIS need someone who has built relationships with local landlords and has an extensive and broad knowledge of the community. O’Brien says it’s right down to granular things like whether a property manager would be willing to have a ramp installed at a particular apartment, or where to find a moving van to carry furniture.
“We need as many folks on the ground as possible looking for leads or making contact for us with landlords that will rent affordable housing,” she says.
“I really feel the single most incredible thing that real estate agents can do is just inform landlords about these people. We know that in general refugees…are really good tenants. We just need to help landlords go one half step beyond what they normally do,” he says.
The Afghan refugees in particular are likely to be very successful, indicates O’Brien. Because most, if not all, are part of the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program that was created for people who assisted the U.S. military or other agencies, at least one member of the family is fluent in English, she says. They are often highly skilled and educated, and have skills and work experience that U.S. employers find valuable, she adds.
Tobin says that from a purely business standpoint, taking in refugees provides a consistent stream of tenants—ones who are paying market rates who are, “hungry to make it in America and will take such pride in their home.”
He uses the city of Boise, Idaho, as an example, which for many years was a common landing spot for asylum seekers. Now, the entire real estate market has experienced a boom, at least in part catalyzed by thriving refugee communities, according to Tobin.
At the same time, O’Brien says she hoped the community at large understands the refugee crisis is really about what every community is defined by and how it helps out its neighbors.
“We need folks to realize this is a humanitarian cause,” she says. “We really need folks to respond, seeing these folks for what they are—they’re our allies.”
What You Can Do
All 50 states have NGOs like IRIS. Many are faith-based organizations, and they range in size from a single location with a few dozen full-time employees to large networks that span multiple states and regions.
Tobin says anyone who wants to help can simply reach out, pick up the phone or write an email to the nearest organization assisting refugees in their area. Any help with finding housing is desperately needed, O’Brien says, but there are many other ways to help out as well, including fundraising, which many of the agencies depend heavily on.
Many, but not all resettlement agencies also have programs that allow local churches, groups of friends or businesses to “co-sponsor” individual refugee families. These groups often do some training with the resettlement agency but are asked to utilize their own skills and connections to obtain furniture and other supplies, guide them through local transportation and shopping resources, and assist with a multitude of other things in the community.
True-Funk says, traditionally, churches and nonprofits have taken up that call. But she adds that anyone can get together with like-minded friends and colleagues if they want to form a co-sponsorship group.
“If a RE/MAX office of several real estate agents wanted to do that kind of connecting, we would be happy to work with them around volunteering and sponsorship,” she says.
In Connecticut, it was a real estate agent who led one of IRIS’ very first co-sponsor groups back in 2015, recalls O’Brien, an effort that was incredibly successful and rewarding for everyone involved that drew on membership and resources from multiple cities.
“Even if [a real estate agent] didn’t want to lead a group, they could…bring all of the key volunteer skill sets that are needed for a group,” O’Brien says. “They know folks in the school system, they know stay-at-home parents who can help with school registration…they would be great in these community groups.”
Due to the high visibility of the current crisis, True-Funk says she has been contacted by more and more people hoping to help. She compares the situation right now to the atmosphere during the 1975 fall of Saigon, when everyone from individual family groups to small business owners sponsored refugees from that country.
Similar to that time, no one knows for certain the exact timing or even the refugee status—whether the Afghan folks will have certain benefits or designations when they arrive. Both O’Brien and True-Funk say they sometimes have to prepare for arrivals with 24-hour’s notice, not even knowing the medical histories or specific needs of the incoming refugees.
Those scenarios are only going to grow more common in the coming weeks and months, according to Tobin. And maybe more than ever before, it will be incumbent on the everyday residents of towns and cities from coast-to-coast to step up and provide support for families who have suffered and sacrificed a great deal for a chance at safety, opportunity and freedom in the United States.
“It feels closer to home,” says True-Funk. “There will be work to be done.”
A list of local resettlement agencies sorted by state can be found here. Anyone interested in volunteering can also reach out to Refugee Council USA at email@example.com to be connected to a local resettlement agency.
Jesse Williams is RISMedia’s associate online editor. Email him your real estate news ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.