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SoCal’s High Housing Costs Snarl Afghan Refugee Resettlement

An Afghan boy in a shirt with horizontal gray and white stripes, around age 9, carries a plastic bag as walks out of Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia with a man in a long white tunic following behind him, presumably his father.
People evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan are arriving in the U.S., such as this family at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C.
(Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
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Getty Images North America)
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Refugees from Afghanistan have begun to arrive in Southern California, but unaffordable rents are complicating the rushed resettlement as they seek to join friends and family already here.

A local refugee resettlement agency that has received eight Afghan families over 10 days has placed them in hotels around Los Angeles County because it’s been difficult to quickly find housing that falls within the tight budgets allotted to refugee households.

Landlords contacted by the International Institute of Los Angeles have raised their rents to cover losses during the pandemic, said Lilian Alba, the agency’s vice president of immigrant and refugee services. Some landlords are also requiring proof of income and established credit history that refugees lack.

Alba said the agency is now asking the public to temporarily open their homes for free or at reduced rent if they live in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino or Riverside counties. This will buy time for staff to find long-term housing for the refugees.

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“Even a couple of nights makes a big difference,” Alba said. “Hotel prices are very expensive. So, anything, really, at this point is welcome and appreciated.”

Insufficient Federal Reimbursement

The federal government gives Alba's agency a minimum one-time payment of $1,025 to spend on each refugee — adult or child. In a family with several children that needs multiple bedrooms, those funds are quickly eaten up by the first month’s rent and a security deposit. Anything left over is given to the refugees to spend on household essentials.

Refugee advocates usually have more lead time to prepare for arrivals, but the rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops has created waves of refugees desperate to escape the new regime.

Alba predicts the pace of placements — almost one family a day since Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15 — will continue for months. Advocates at several other Southern California resettlement agencies say they expect to be handling placements soon as well.

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On Tuesday, the International Institute of Los Angeles received same-day notice that two Afghan families would be arriving from Dulles, Virginia to LAX in just seven hours. Alba said the families are happy to be in the United States, but show clear signs of stress.

“They immediately start sharing the traumatic process, talking about how they had to find their way to getting on the plane, trying to protect their families, spending hours without access to water, with little children not being able to eat,” Alba said. “It's horrific. It's really, really heartbreaking.”

Volunteers And Interpreters Needed

Alba said the agency needs volunteers to ferry refugees from the airport and to take them to appointments, as well as Pashto and Dari speakers to serve as interpreters. It is also seeking cash or in-kind donations to help pay for items such as beds and other home furnishings. Volunteers can sign up on the agency’s website.

Pre-pandemic, relatives and friends of refugees were more apt to provide housing and financial support, but many have suffered income losses during the pandemic and some have been forced into shared housing situations themselves, Alba said.

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Because of the high cost of living in California, refugees are not resettled here unless they have some kind of personal ties to the state, Alba said. Many arrivals are headed to the Sacramento-area, which has one of the state’s largest concentrations of Afghans, but some have chosen Southern California, where Afghan communities have formed in pockets of Orange and Los Angeles counties.

José Serrano, associate director of immigration and outreach at the World Relief in Garden Grove, is preparing for an influx of refugees. The director of his office flew to New Jersey to help process hundreds of refugees who were first landing at a military base there before going to other parts of the country.

In anticipation of the refugees' arrival in Orange County, members of several churches have stopped by World Relief offering to support the integration of families into the community. Serrano said churches are asked to join World Relief's "Good Neighbors Teams," in which participants can help out with apartment set-ups and English tutoring, for example.

"The idea is to have churches work alongside families for six months or up to a year-and-a-half," Serrano said. "But beyond that, it's not just a transactional relationship. It's a friendship for a lifetime."

The International Rescue Committee in Los Angeles is also readying for refugees by seeking donations and volunteers. It's encouraging Angelenos to offer temporary housing through Airbnb, which is offering to cover stays for 20,000 refugees around the country through contributions from its CEO and to its charities.

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Leaders in Southern California, such as Irvine's mayor and elected leaders from Los Angeles and West Hollywood, have signed a letter calling on President Joe Biden to give entry to 125,000 Afghan refugees.

On Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution calling on the Biden Administration to devote more resources for the Department of Homeland Security to expedite immigration applications, and for the Justice Department to grant parole status to Afghan refugees so they can be processed in the U-S.

Board chairman Andrew Do also called on residents to donate to non-profits that are helping resettle Afghan refugees. Do's district includes Westminster's "Little Saigon," which is home to the largest population of Vietnamese Americans in the nation.

"As Vietnamese Americans watch the heartbreaking images from Kabul airport, we are reliving the trauma and the pain felt during Black April, 1975," Do said. "We know what it means to flee a violent and oppressive regime. And we understand what it means to live as refugees."

The families coming through the International Institute of Los Angeles so far were able to obtain Special Immigrant Visas because members worked for the U.S. government as interpreters, Alba said.

They immediately start sharing the traumatic process ... It's horrific. It's really, really heartbreaking.
— Lillian Alba, International Institute of Los Angeles

Alba said these families will be connected with medical and mental health services and employment programs and will be able to apply for public benefits, including rental assistance. Most of the households arriving have two parents and several minor children who will need to adapt to new school systems.

Challenges lay ahead for these households, but Alba is even more worried about the Afghan evacuees who make it to the U.S. and seek asylum, but will not have access to the same funds and programming as special visa holders.

“You're going to have this other group being alienated because of their status,” Alba said. “Our concern is that population.”

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.