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Afghan Refugees Are Arriving in LA, But It’s Tough To Find Affordable Housing

Two pairs of hands rest on a glass table top, a man's and a woman's. They each have a ring on their ring fingers. Next to this image there is another of a man and woman from behind standing at a distance. They are in a corner of a backyard with grass, a gravel path, wooden fence, and tall bamboo plants.
Ahmed and Wida arrived in L.A. in late October after an ordeal that began in August, when they fled Afghanistan on a U.S. military flight. They did not want their last names used or their faces shown to protect loved ones back home.
(Alborz Kamalizad
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As Afghan Refugees Arrive In SoCal, A Struggle To Find Them Affordable Housing

In the rear guest unit of a home in Santa Monica, a young couple named Ahmed and Wida are decompressing from their months-long ordeal after leaving Afghanistan in August.

It started with a crowded U.S. military flight out of Kabul, which they managed to board after two days at the packed airport. Ahmed taught at an American school in Kabul, a job that put he and Wida in danger after the U.S.-backed Afghan government fell to the Taliban.

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

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

“We are really thankful they gave us this space to just feel ‘home,’ and also relax and feel comfortable, because I think for the last three months, we didn’t have any space to … just call it a home,” said Ahmed. (He and Wida did not 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 a challenge looms: finding them an affordable place to live in one of the country’s priciest rental markets.

‘There Is Just Not Enough’

On a recent morning, Lilian Alba with the International Institute of Los Angeles, one of a handful of local resettlement agencies, went over her list of families on their way to LAX.

“We have about 60 people coming … it's probably going to be closer to 80 by the end of the week,” said Alba, the agency’s vice president of immigrant and refugee services. “All of those families will be going to … hotels, Airbnb, and maybe one or two host homes.”

The new arrivals will be “spending weeks and weeks in hotels or motels,” she said, “because there is just not enough.”

An Afghan boy, around age 9, in a striped shirt walks out of Dulles airport with a masked man following behind him, presumably his father.
A young child carries his belongings as he and his family evacuated from Kabul walk out of Dulles International Airport.
(Anna Moneymaker
Getty Images North America)

On top of the shortage of affordable units, landlords who’ve lost money during the pandemic are less willing to take a chance on newcomers who will be looking for work, Alba said.

“Even the units that we’re finding, we’re not able to secure them because there’s a lack of proof of income, credits, cosigners,” said Alba, adding that resettlement agencies can’t act as co-signers for refugees.

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Resettlement groups are expecting upwards of 15,000 Afghan refugees in California. Of these, roughly 4,000 to 5,000 are expected to settle locally, Alba said. So far, the majority have been routed to the Sacramento area, which not only has a large Afghan community, but is cheaper.

While agencies try to place refugees near any U.S. ties they might 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 U.S. State Department spokesperson wrote: “The availability and affordability of housing in many locations around the country are a key factor and constraint in the community’s capacity to resettle individuals.”

Each new arrival receives a one-time payment of roughly $1,100. But in Los Angeles, that’s nowhere near enough for a family of four to cover first and last month’s rent and a security deposit on the average two-bedroom apartment.

Filling The Gaps

Resettlement groups have to act quickly. Refugees get only 90 days’ worth of resettlement case management, which includes finding housing, getting them connected with public services, helping them find jobs and other assistance.

To fill the gaps as demand grows, local resettlement agencies have teamed up with nonprofits, foundations, churches, community groups — anyone who can help raise funds to chip in with rental costs or act as a guarantor.

Some groups have stepped up: The Weingart Foundation recently provided grants to seven local organizations to help with resettlement efforts.

But the demand continues to outstrip the supply.

Orange County, which has a sizable Afghan community, has been a draw for some families. But the housing market there is expensive — a two-bedroom apartment can easily rent for $2,600 a month — and extremely competitive, said Madelynn Hirneise, CEO of Families Forward, an Irvine-based nonprofit that helps those at risk of homelessness.

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

“As much as we have these willing participants and these landlords that are so generous, they don't have units to give,” said Hirneise, whose staff has been cold-calling property owners, even driving around looking for vacancies.

‘They Can Stay As Long As They Like’

Housing stability is critical for people who have experienced trauma, said Jose Serrano, director of outreach and immigration with the Garden Grove office of World Relief.

“The initial period of resettlement is just extremely difficult,” Serrano said. “You’re trying to find a job, you're trying to secure housing. You're also ... healing from all the traumatic experiences that you've encountered.”

Serrano pointed out that while there’s been an outpouring of support from the community, many have wanted to donate items such as clothing and furniture. There will be a time for that, he said, but right now, the greatest need is for housing.

The Santa Monica woman who volunteered to host Ahmed and Wida in her small guest unit is named Susan — she didn’t want to give her last name.

“I’ve told them they can stay as long as they like, as long as they need to,” Susan said. ”I think it will take a while for them to be in a position to be self-sufficient.”

Ahmed and Wida are still getting their bearings in L.A. They’ve gazed at the Pacific Ocean and taken in the city courtesy of Susan, who’s taken on the role of tour guide and cultural interpreter.

“Everything is new,” Ahmed said. “Like when you want to cross the street you have to press the button.”

‘You Cannot Be A Guest Until New Year’s’

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

“I would like to go to my own apartment and pay my own rent and be self-sufficient and find a job,” Ahmed said. “We have a saying in my country: You cannot be a guest until New Year’s.”

A man and woman have their backs to us as they stand in a glass doorway. They face out onto a small patio area. Inside, the end of a glass table is visible to their left which has a tea kettle and a vase of pink flowers on top.
Ahmed and Wida left Afghanistan in August with scarcely more than two changes of clothes. They've landed with a host family in Santa Monica as their resettlement agency seeks permanent housing for them.
(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 just received work permits. In addition to Ahmed’s teaching, they both worked in the medical field in Afghanistan, and they hope to find something related here.

And as it turns out, Ahmed and Wida are also just starting their life together: They’re newlyweds.

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

While they’d hoped to come to the U.S. in the distant future, they hadn’t planned to start their married life here. But they want to make the most of it.

Speaking in Dari as her husband translated, Wida listed the three things she wishes for: To find a job, to have children — and a home of their own.

What questions do you have about immigration and emerging communities in LA?

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