An affordable housing crisis: Afghan refugees in Madison

MADISON, Wis. — For Afghan families resettling in Madison, a lack of affordable housing is little short of a crisis.

The city’s only local resettlement agency, Jewish Social Services, has resettled about 35 refugees so far in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. The fall of Kabul sent tens of thousands of Afghans fleeing to the United States where they’ve waited at eight military installations — including Fort McCoy — for processing before finding permanent homes in the country.

JSS expects to resettle a total of 75 Afghan refugees in the Madison area, a number that for both the city and state is expected to fluctuate. Wisconsin was first approved for 399 refugees, but the state’s refugee director says they have applied for and are now expecting a much higher, still-unfinalized number.

About 150 refugees have permanently resettled statewide, roughly half of them from Fort McCoy and half from military installations outside the state, according to Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families, which houses the refugee bureau.

But in Madison and across Wisconsin, a combination of cultural, financial, and other factors are creating a challenge that surpasses any other.

Crisis of affordable housing

For several weeks, one Afghan family of seven has waited — and still waits — in temporary housing for a permanent home in Madison. Finding affordable homes for refugees is the top priority and the biggest challenge resettlement workers are facing, JSS staff said.

“We haven’t been able to find anything because most people are going to say, ‘You need a four-bedroom,'” JSS resettlement director Becca Schwartz explained. “A four-bedroom that is remotely affordable is hard to come by.”

Afghan families are typically large. Before the fall of Kabul, JSS had recently resettled three different Afghan families of eight members. Finding affordable and suitable housing for a family of that size in one of the state’s most notoriously expensive cities takes weeks, long hours, and a lot of frustration.

“It’s been a challenge. With the other refugee populations, we’ve understood what to expect and how things work, and this is different,” Schwartz said. “We don’t have enough time to find and set up housing, with the amount of time we are getting before they arrive.”

RELATED: Concerns over medical care, anxious to leave: An Afghan journalist’s plight at Fort McCoy

Culturally, Afghan families typically rely on a single income to survive, and helping them preserve their culture in a new country is a priority for JSS. That limits what a family will be able to afford in Madison, with Schwartz estimating that their options cap out at about $1,200.

But occupancy restrictions and Madison’s highly-competitive rental market means that for a seven-member family, many landlords will require the family uses a four-bedroom apartment. Refugees also need to be close to public transit since they typically don’t have cars yet, and ideally, they’d be close to other Afghans in Madison’s community (about a third of Afghan refugees to Wisconsin over the years have settled in Dane County).

RELATED: Communication barriers, fears for those left behind: The experience for Afghan refugees in Madison

When all of those factors are combined with a lack of rental history, a credit score, or a current job, the number of options radically shrinks. JSS handles the security deposit and first four months of rent for all refugees they resettle so they can move in and start learning English before searching for employment.

“There’s all kinds of housing that is off-limits because the landlords will not consider renting to this group of people because they don’t meet the criteria,” Schwartz noted.

Organizations like the Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin have been a key help for JSS, helping connect them to landlords who owned affordable three-bedroom homes for past Afghan families. When JSS reaches out to them with a need, they have the ability to put a call out to their members.

Landlords who can work with refugee needs are scarce, and typically they’re ones with only a few properties — hard to contact, hard to find.

“My team doesn’t have the capacity to be scouring Craigslist and making all those calls right now,” Schwartz explained. JSS, like many resettlement agencies, is hurting for staff and loaded with more work than they can handle. Currently, they have five open positions.

While Madison is one of Wisconsin’s most expensive cities, the problem of affordable housing is one that many cities resettling refugees is facing: in Washington D.C., in Charlotte, in Salt Lake City–nearly anywhere where Afghan refugees hastily evacuated from their home have been flown for resettlement. In Connecticut, state officials are asking landlords to step up to the challenge.

“Putting a 10-member family in a two-bedroom apartment is not going to work,” state refugee coordinator Bojana Zoric Martinez explained. “This is not only a Wisconsin issue, this is not only Madison, this is not only Milwaukee issue. This is a national issue.”

A need for gift cards, cash donations

Most refugees are facing a weeks-long gap between when they can begin the resettlement process and when they are actually connected to benefits like Wisconsin’s FoodShare, the state’s food stamps program.

COVID-19 has introduced delays in the social security card process, which unlocks those benefits, leaving refugees often strapped for cash and basic needs.

The public, however, can help.

JSS’s executive director said they’re most in need of gift cards for Woodmans or other affordable grocery stores, Burlington Coat Factory and Amazon. Culturally-appropriate clothes are tough to source in Madison, Berney explained, leaving Amazon as an affordable and easily accessible choice.

“To have the opportunity to choose the clothing that you’re going to wear or your children are going to wear is so helpful, psychologically, for people,” Berney said.

Generous cash donations flowed in during the initial rush of news coverage and public attention when refugees first started arriving at Fort McCoy, Berney noted. That has helped the agency immensely to cover the high costs of temporary housing; the agency also foots the bill for the security deposit and first four months of rent for refugees.

They get some federal aid, but it’s not enough to cover everything. And with refugees continuing to come, that need for cash at the agency will continue.

Partners with JSS, like volunteers at Open Doors for Refugees in Madison, are helping with some of the basic clothing needs as well. Open Doors is also currently running a winter clothing drive for refugees still at Fort McCoy.

RELATED: Looking for ways to help Afghan refugees? Open Doors for Refugees seeking donations, volunteers

“Most of them have come with nothing but the clothes on their back, and therefore need to start from scratch,” Zoric Martinez said.

The goal, ultimately, is to help Afghan refugees adjust to a new culture and society, help them understand the rules and processes of living in the United States and Madison and have the resources they need to survive.

“That’s what’s keeping me up at night,” Schwartz reflected. “It’s a lot of work.”

And for those they resettle, JSS will continue to provide them support and education as they adjust to being tenants and neighbors in a new country.

“They really do make great neighbors,” Berney said. “I would really encourage anyone, particularly anyone with housing, to think about that.”