This policy brief was prepared by the American Refugee Committee (ARC) in regards to helping refugees better obtain and retain safe housing that suits their skills and cultural background while also complementing the communities they join.

ARC is an international, nonprofit that works to provide opportunities and expertise to refugees, displaced people, and host communities. ARC is committed to the delivery of programs that ensure measurable quality and lasting impact for people served. For more information, visit http://arcrelief.org/.

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Introduction

Though all people may not immediately associate housing with good health, one’s living conditions are tightly associated with his or her wellness. As a major part of an individual’s physical environment, a social determinant of health, housing can impact health in a variety of ways. Poor living conditions are related to development of infectious and chronic disease associated with ineffective waste disposal, infestation, and toxic substances among others (Krieger & Higgins, 2002). In addition to physical ailments, lack of proper housing can contribute to poor mental health as well (Krieger & Higgins, 2002). A notable portion of individuals in the United States suffer from homelessness and a lack of affordable housing, but one particular group of interest is the refugee population. Refugees are who cannot or will not return to their country of nationality due to actual or the likely fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, as well as because of war or violence (Kanof, 2016). The resettlement process entails extensive vetting of potential refugees. After this, the Resettlement Support Center assigns refugees to private voluntary agencies (VOLAGs) to determine where the refugee will live. VOLAGs are given a sum of money to prepare for the refugee’s arrival to the US, which includes 90-day housing.

While some might be reluctant regarding supporting refugee resettlement in the United States, there are several reasons for the United States to support refugees. There are moral and ethical obligations associated with helping displaced populations. Additionally, in various cities including Utica, NY and Erie, PA, incoming refugees contributed to revitalizing declining neighborhoods and counteract negative and stagnant population growth (Singer & Wilson, 2006). Refugees face several compounding challenges to living a healthy life and getting accustomed to the United States including language barriers, the demands of obtaining a steady income or education, physical and mental health ailments, as well as other difficulties. In addition to these factors, refugees must also secure safe housing. However, an ideal housing situation can be rather expensive in today’s market, especially for refugees who typically work low-wage jobs. Furthermore, refugees might not be aware that they have rights as it relates to housing given their pasts and prior living situations, making obtaining clean, safe housing more difficult for these individuals. Detailed below are three notable issues related to securing safe, affordable housing for refugees.

Lack of affordable housing

            VOLAGs prepare arrangements for refugees’ first 90 days in the United States, including housing, furnishing, food, clothing, and other services such as employment counseling (American Immigration Council, 2015). However, after those initial three months of housing, refugees are responsible for securing and paying their own housing. Refugees are not given preferential treatment in the housing market, as this would violate the Fair Housing law (Office of Refugee Resettlement, 2012). Some individuals can obtain employment and make ends meet with the aid of federal programs for low-income individuals. However, others still struggle with finding affordable housing, especially if households just exceed income limits for federal assistance. Gentrification and general rising costs of living in metropolitan areas which often house refugees can make it even more challenging for these individuals to find reasonably priced housing. On top of homeless refugee populations residing in shelters or transitional housing, many refugees live in hotels, stay in churches, or even bunk with compassionate friends, neighbors, and relatives (Turnbull, 2010).  As a result, the housing needs of this community are notably underestimated.

Lack of Reasonable Flexibility of Occupancy Standards

            Living arrangement regulations and occupancy standards are crucial in protecting the safety of residents and individuals in the community as overcrowding can contribute to reduced sanitation, respiratory conditions, and acute infections (Krieger & Higgins, 2002). Nevertheless, lack of consideration and reasonable flexibility regarding refugees’ living situations can result in clandestine overcrowding of friends’ and relatives’ apartments or an increase in the number of homeless individuals. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) dictates that a maximum of two persons per living or sleeping room can reside in spaces financed or insured by HUD (Office of Refugee Resettlement, 2017). However, such guidelines do not provide any flexibility for couples with small children, requiring them to seek larger, more costly housing. Though state and local laws may apply their own unique occupancy standards to non-HUD financed units, refugees sometimes face similar problems regarding occupancy standards and caring for their accompanying children or elderly. It is important to uphold safety laws as much as possible, but providing reasonable flexibility, adequate housing provisions, and support for individuals who cannot meet such standards is imperative in order to avoid gross violations of occupancy laws at a later stage in refugees’ lives.  

Inefficient Regulation of VOLAGs

To compound these issues related to occupancy standards, there are instances in which VOLAGs have attempted to circumvent occupancy laws, resulting in termination of housing agreements after families have moved to the United States (Bowen, 2017). Such cases further attest to the lack of affordable housing, but it also highlights the lack of regulation of VOLAGs who provide initial arrangements for refugees. VOLAGs are contracted by the government, but there is no systematic monitoring of these religious or community-based organizations (Kanof, 2016). As a result, refugees serviced by different VOLAGs can receive vastly different amounts of support and guidance. In refugee populations where stability hinges on adjustment to the language and culture of the US, inadequate support can contribute to unemployment and reliable housing arrangements. This inefficient management of VOLAGs is partially a result of the disjointed sectors of the Office of Refugee Resettlement which are regulated by separate government agencies: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, and Health and Human Services (Kanof, 2016). The uncoordinated nature of the Office of Refugee Resettlement might not initially seem to be an issue that relates to housing. However, the inefficiencies created by this arrangement trickles down to impact VOLAGs and refugees themselves.

Policy Implications

The previously mentioned issues describe only a few challenges refugees face toward obtaining secure housing. Considering that refugee populations must deal with a myriad of interrelated issues related to adjusting to life in the United States, policy interventions might not solely focus on housing but also address challenges related to employment. First, regarding affordable housing, the federal government could consider providing more subsidies to make housing more affordable for low-income populations including refugees. Because refugees are not given preference for housing, this solution hinges on VOLAGs and other agencies to connect refugees to affordable housing programs. Regarding occupancy standards, the HUD could amend occupancy standards and guidelines to emphasize review of the composition of refugee families when determining where they may reside. Making the public housing appeals processes more transparent and encourage state and local systems to do the same for other housing units might also help refugees and their advocates circumvent overly stringent occupancy laws within reason. Regulation of VOLAGs to ensure a standardized amount of support for refugees also appears needed. This might be accomplished by establishing a centralized body that oversees refugee resettlement rather than the fragmented system in place today. By properly and efficiently regulating VOLAGs, costs could potentially be reduced while also creating a baseline amount of support that refugees should receive. Standardizing this system might also prevent against housing issues as a result of VOLAGs’ arrangements by making the system more transparent.

These recommendations are extensive and will require some time to enact. However, by enabling refugees to obtain safe, affordable housing, they will have the means to better adjust and contribute to society in other ways. Efforts to improve refugee housing may likely improve mental and physical health. Additionally, some of these solutions could also benefit other low-income residents in the United States. There are significant challenges to changing nationwide policies and encouraging compliance on a state and local level. Given the current conservative political climate, more energy would have to placed in advocating the rights of refugees and framing issues so that benefits to communities and current US residents would have to be highlighted. 

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