One week a refugee family is fleeing the brutality of civil war and living in a shipping container near the Syrian border, and the next they might be moving into a furnished apartment in Cleveland. Completing this trek from war-torn villages to safety in the U.S. can take years and involves a complex apparatus of donors, volunteers, nonprofit organizations, and U.S. State Department personnel. But the resettlement process ends just like every American apartment rental story: with a signature on a lease.
Welcoming refugees to the U.S. has become a highly charged political issue in the wake of last week's terror attacks in Paris that killed 129 people. The House of Representatives voted on Thursday to put the resettlement program on hold even in the face of a growing humanitarian crisis. Thirty-one governors have objected to taking in refugees, and a majority of American adults in a recent Bloomberg Politics poll doesn't want to accept Syrians over concerns about terrorist infiltrators. There is renewed impulse to protect the nation by turning away desperate refugee families trying to escape dangerous areas.
But the small group of U.S. property owners who lease homes to refugees have come to learn something that has been unnoticed in this heated debate: Renters from regions suffering the gravest instability tend to make the most stable tenants. Renting to refugees, it turns out, has become a surprisingly steady business.
For the past five years, Daryl Anderson has been buying foreclosed homes in Cleveland on the west side of the Cuyahoga River, usually for less than $8,000. He fixes them up and rents most of the homes to new arrivals from Iraq, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other places mired in conflict. About 80 percent of the tenants in his 40 rental units are refugees.
“I’ve never had to evict a refugee family,” says Anderson, 36, who built his apartment portfolio after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. “When they come here and get a quality house, they take care of the stuff that they’re provided.”
Keith Raynor, who has rented apartments in Utica, N.Y., for three decades, also prefers to sign leases with refugees. “There was less turnover, which helps with the bottom line,” he says. “I’m not doing this for charity.”
Anderson's business has been able to expand because of consistent demand from newcomers. Most of his tenants—who typically pay $750 a month for a three-bedroom unit—are referred by Us Together, a local affiliate of Hias, one of nine resettlement agencies that contract with the U.S. government to provide services to refugees. Anderson's steady relationship with Us Together has created a dependable flow of new tenants, which in turn helps him bring two new rental apartments onto the market per month.
When a tenant moves out, Us Together helps Anderson fill the vacancy. When he finishes a new renovation, the nonprofit often has someone ready to move in. “If I post on Craigslist, I’ll get 10 responses, and I’ll show the apartment to six of them,” the landlord says. “That’s harder.”
Once a refugee is referred to the U.S. by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, it typically takes 18 to 24 months to process the application. But things move quickly after a refugee is allocated to a resettlement agency and placed with local nonprofits, forcing aid workers to scramble to arrange basic household items and services such as school admissions. The U.S. government requires resettlement agencies to equip refugees' new homes with a list of furnishings only a bureaucrat could love. In addition to basics, such as a box frame and mattress, each refugee is entitled to receive a can opener, an alarm clock, and pen and paper, says Danielle Drake, a community outreach coordinator for Us Together.
To house refugees on arrival, the resettlement agencies need property owners who will rent to tenants sight unseen, usually without so much as a credit check. (Before they arrive in the U.S., refugees are vetted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies.) Refugees receive a one-time stipend of up to $1,125, which must cover all initial expenses, including housing. That often means persuading landlords to waive all or part of a security deposit.
To convince landlords that it makes sense to work with refugees, advocates emphasize reliability. “Refugees have often been on the move for so long that it’s a tremendous relief to be able to stop traveling,” says Sarah Ivory, a regional director at the CWS Immigration & Refugee Program, a resettlement agency. She tempts landlords with the prospect of conscientious tenants who have a tendency to stay in an apartment for a long time.
Meanwhile, the resettlement agencies and their affiliates provide strong job placement support and, at times, private funds to help refugees through a rough spell. That can give landlords a measure of confidence that tenants will be able to pay the rent. When Ivory started out as a case manager for a refugee aid group 10 years ago, those inducements meant “landlords would fall over backwards” to rent to her clients. Now, however, “the rental market is much more saturated,” Ivory says. “In some places, it’s getting harder to find people with vacancies who are willing to take the risk.”
Abby Christophel, a landlord who estimates that refugees occupy about 10 percent of her family’s 180 rental apartments in Harrisonburg, Va., will quote Leviticus to explain why she rents to refugees: “The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself.” But the 40-year-old landlord has other reasons to prefer people fleeing war and strife.
“This is an area with a lot of students,” says Christophel. “We would rather rent to refugees, who aren’t likely to throw a midnight kegger.”
(Corrects the spelling of Abby Christophel's first name in the second-to-last paragraph.)