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Southern California Has Jobs For Incoming Afghans — But Not Much Affordable Housing

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Taliban's quick takeover of Afghanistan has led to a massive surge of refugees coming into the U.S., and it's caught resettlement agencies around the country off guard. Now there's a scramble to find them housing. Josie Huang from member station KPCC in Southern California has been tracking this, and she joins us now.

Hi, Josie.

JOSIE HUANG, BYLINE: Hi there.

FADEL: So resettlement agencies usually have more lead time to set up newcomers in their homes, but that's not what's happening right now, right?

HUANG: Right. Yeah, I heard from refugee advocates serving LA that they're lucky if they have a day to get ready. One person in refugee services told me she was given seven hours' notice that an Afghan family was flying into LAX and needed to be picked up. So that's not a lot of time to find transportation, let alone affordable long-term housing for these families.

FADEL: Wow. Advocates say there are job opportunities in Southern California, but you mentioned housing in this part of the country is synonymous with high rents. How does this affect refugee resettlement?

HUANG: Well, as you know, the already high rents here keep rising, so that means the little money refugees have gets mostly eaten up by housing. The U.S. government gives each arriving refugee a one-time allocation of a little over $1,000. So in a household of five, that's more than $5,000. But in LA, median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is about $2,400 a month. So by the time you pay the first month's rent plus the security deposit, there's not much money left. And refugees still have to buy furnishings like beds and chairs and tables, you know, the essentials they need to start a life in a new country.

FADEL: Wow. And it's not just housing costs. The pandemic has made getting housing in general harder. How?

HUANG: Well, it's always been a struggle to find landlords who are willing to rent to refugees. It's because they don't have credit histories or proof of income. That's why when you find a place like community volunteer Nazi Etemadi did, you're super grateful. She's originally from Afghanistan herself. And she told me there was this apartment complex in Orange County which had rented to dozens of refugee families over the last decade. But Etemadi said the landlord's relaxed attitude changed during the pandemic when a number of tenants fell behind on the rent.

NAZI ETEMADI: They were hurt by people not being able to pay the rents. Then, they started asking for credit checks. So now we can't take them there either.

HUANG: Now, friends and families of the refugees who came earlier and, you know, the reasons why these refugees are coming may be able to provide some accommodations. But advocates told me some of them have been hard-hit by the pandemic and less able to help.

FADEL: So in the LA area, the high cost of housing has led resettlement agencies to turn to the general public for help. What are they asking for?

HUANG: They're asking landlords to consider renting to refugees. They're also asking homeowners with extra space to open up their homes. This could mean spare rooms or a backyard unit that they'd be willing to offer for free or maybe at reduced rent. I spoke with Lilian Alba about this, and she works in refugee services at the International Institute of LA. And she's been placing families in hotels as her staff rushes to find apartments. Alba says locals can buy her staff some time by temporarily providing housing.

LILIAN ALBA: Ideally, we're hoping two to three weeks. But even a couple of nights makes a big difference. Hotel prices are very expensive, so anything at this point is welcome and appreciated.

FADEL: So are they getting the help they need? We're still in a pandemic - a lot of people suffering. Is it - are less people able or willing to open their homes up?

HUANG: Yes, definitely. Advocates say this might give some people pause. But overall, they describe a tremendous outpouring of support from locals in Southern California, who've begun raising money, donating furniture and even offering to host refugee families.

FADEL: That's Josie Huang from member station KPCC in Southern California.

Thank you for your reporting.

HUANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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