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Zac is one of the lucky ones.
The 32-year-old Afghan refugee – technically a “humanitarian parolee” – spent three months at the U.S. Army’s Fort McCoy in Wisconsin before being relocated to Albuquerque, where he and his family were able to get into a rental apartment with the help of Lutheran Family Services.
LFS currently does almost all the housing placements for refugees who come from any number of countries – but those placements are becoming increasingly difficult.
The huge demand and short supply of homes in Albuquerque have caused a severe housing shortage.
In addition, LFS is trying to help a large influx of Afghan refugees. Normally, during the course of a year, LFS would place about 100 refugees from various parts of the world. It is currently trying to house about 100 a month, most of them from Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, Zac worked as a sales representative for a telecommunications company and as a financial analyst for a construction company before taking a job as a translator for U.S. Army forces there. When the U.S. military vacated Afghanistan and the Taliban became the de facto government, Zac, his wife and their 3-year-old daughter fled the country, expedited by a Special Immigrant Visa.
Like many Afghan refugees, Zac is reluctant to use his full name or show his face in photographs because of uncertainty about the reach of the Taliban, and because of fear of reprisals against family members still living in the country.
While he finds comfort in the familiarity of the high desert landscape of Albuquerque, which is similar to much of his homeland, Zac said he is not completely at ease in his apartment in the Southeast part of the city.
Grateful to have a roof over his head, he said, there is no escaping the reality that where he lives, “is not in a good neighborhood.”
Indeed, the area where Zac is housed is recognized by police as having a high rate of crime, violence and drug abuse. Because of that, Zac said he had to turn down a job offer at a big-box department store that would have had him working late into the night and leaving his wife and child alone.
“It was far away, and I would have had to walk because I don’t have transportation,” he said.
LFS is currently aiding in his job search, as well as providing him and other refugees additional support, said economic development program manager Jeff Hall. That support comes in the form of food, mental health services, aid in opening a bank account and acquisition of a driver’s license and state ID card. The organization also helps with accessing some government benefits and offering programs in English as a second language, financial literacy and job skills, he said.
“We have an employment program where we’re able to get people jobs relatively quickly, particularly if they have permanent housing,” Hall said. “Our average time from date of arrival to getting them their first job is two months.”
LFS provides refugees with, on average, 90 days of housing assistance, by which time the refugees should have been placed in jobs and be generating enough income to start paying their own housing expenses, Hall said. They can continue to receive other services through LFS.
LFS is primarily funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The funding is based on a per-refugee formula. But that formula doesn’t help in the search for housing.
“So the problem now is finding available housing,” Hall said. “We have different community partners who we work with and we’re able to get people into these homes, but the challenge is working with new partners and finding more housing, because the need is so much greater than what our current partners have in available space.”
The biggest need is housing for very large refugee families – in some cases eight to 12 family members, Hall said. “That means we need homes with four, five or more bedrooms. You simply can’t put 10 people in a two-bedroom home with one bath.”
On top of issues regarding family size, the refugee population has additional obstacles to overcome, Hall said. “Many of them are coming in with no credit history, no rental history, no employment history, limited English capacity, and they’re competing for limited housing against other applicants who have all of these things.”
That competition is often with area residents who qualify for public housing or for the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, as well as low-income people moving to Albuquerque from larger states where housing has become even more unaffordable, Hall said.
Until housing can be found, LFS is putting up families in short-term Airbnb rentals and in church-owned buildings of various denominations that have bathrooms and have been furnished with beds and laundry appliances, Hall said.
“Funding we got, it’s housing that we need.”
The Albuquerque Housing Authority, which manages Section 8 and public housing programs for the city of Albuquerque, Bernalillo County and Rio Rancho, is also feeling the supply-and-demand pressures. For the last six months, they have seen more requests for extension of housing vouchers because people have been unable to locate rentals and therefore have been unable to use their vouchers, said executive director Linda Bridge.
“I believe it’s related to escalating housing prices across the market. There’s limited inventory for single-family homes and escalating prices for those properties,” Bridge said.
The single-family homes that people previously rented are now being purchased for top dollar, resulting in a loss of rental inventory. That puts pressure on the rental market with more demand for the remaining rental units – and higher rental prices, Bridge said.
“That makes it harder to use housing vouchers, because we do have limits on how much we can subsidize,” she added. “It’s particularly challenging for low-income people who can’t pay a market rent, and rely on rental subsidies to help.”