When the U.S. State Department unveiled its list of cities for recently evacuated Afghan refugees to choose from, one of the stipulations was “a reasonable cost of living” and “housing availability.”
Salt Lake City made that list, but has seen rising housing prices that advocates worry could complicate long-term resettlement efforts.
On Wednesday, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox announced 765 Afghan visa holders and asylum-seekers will resettle in Utah in the coming months, starting in October.
“We’re working closely with Utah’s Refugee Services Office, resettlement agencies, humanitarian groups, private sector leaders, Afghans in Utah and engaged citizens to put processes in place to support new arrivals,” Cox said in a statement. “We are grateful to offer a safe landing place to 765 Afghans and recognize the new perspectives and compassion they will bring to our state.”
The statement noted the number could change. However it will be the most refugees resettled in the Beehive State in since 2016, when former President Donald Trump’s administration brought admittance to historic lows.
According to data from the International Rescue Committee, Trump capped the number of refugees admitted into the country by more than 80%.
Experts say Utah can sustain roughly 1,300 newcomers each year. But in 2020, the state admitted fewer than 200 refugees.
And from 2016 to 2019, Utah saw a steady increase in the cost of rent, usually hovering around 5% to 7% each year. Over the course of the pandemic, five major Utah counties witnessed a stunning 45% increase in average rental costs, according to the property management company Entrata.
That begs the question: Is there really enough affordable housing along the Wasatch Front for an influx of refugees?
For Catholic Community Services and the International Rescue Committee, Utah’s two primary resettlement agencies, it will be the first test of how the resettlement process will mesh with the rising cost of rent and the shrinking availability of affordable housing.
Adapting to a lack of inventory
“The first way it impacts us is the inventory,” said Mark Burton, refugee resettlement program manager for Catholic Community Services of Utah. “The most urgent challenge that we face is just finding a place to rent.”
Burton said that many refugees lack the employment history, credit scores and references that most landlords require. And in an already competitive market, where the demand for rentals has shot above the number of available units, refugees without a financial or rental history in the U.S. are squeezed out despite education and work experience in their home country.
But there are temporary solutions. After the chaotic evacuation of Kabul that left over 100,000 people homeless, Catholic Community Services started receiving calls from people offering their rental units, apartments, even their own homes, to temporarily house refugees.
“We have seen our community calling and wanting to help with temporary housing, which is really great. We will utilize that temporary housing for the short term,” said Aden Batar, director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Community Services of Utah.
It’s just one example of what has been an outpouring of support to put a roof over the heads of those fleeing the war. Airbnb recently said it would provide free, temporary housing around the world for roughly 20,000 Afghan refugees at properties listed on the company’s site.
Airbnb later announced anyone, not just those with properties listed, could sign up to provide free or discounted stays to Afghan refugees, and said it received enough requests that it will be able to surpass its goal of 20,000 people.
While Batar said it’s inspiring, it’s a short-term fix for what he said is a problem his organization is increasingly faced with — finding stable, long-term housing for refugees.
“We want every family to have their own permanent housing. That’s our ultimate goal and that’s where the affordable housing would come in,” he said.
Both Catholic Community Services and the International Rescue Committee have a network of affordable housing complexes, landlords and private homeowners that work with them to find housing for refugees. And in the wake of the crisis in Afghanistan, a number of landlords have stepped up.
Paul Smith, executive director of the Utah Apartment Association, helped coordinate a coalition of property owners with over 20,000 units willing to rent to Afghan refugees that both Catholic Community Services and the International Rescue Committee will be able to fall back on.
Most of those 20,000 units are not currently available, but Smith said if just 5% are at any given time, it should be enough to help Afghans struggling to find permanent housing.
“When we know people are coming, we’ll reach out ... I’m fairly confident every time we reach out, we’ll be able to find something,” Smith said.
It’s an issue that advocates say poses a long-term problem for the resettlement process.
Eventually, the supply of rental units along the Wasatch Front will catch up with the demand— look to the town houses, apartment complexes and suburban neighborhoods creeping into previously undeveloped land.
But whether those units will be affordable for refugees, some who come to the U.S. with nothing and spend their first weeks or months in the country scraping by on government benefits is a complex question.
Current trends suggest they won’t be.
Between January 2019 to July 2021, average rent prices in Utah County increased by 66%, Davis County by 59%, and Salt Lake County by 23%, according to a report released Monday by the Utah-based property management software company Entrata.
Reports from the Utah Apartment Association suggest a more gradual increase, with statewide estimates around 10%. But the data is clear — rent in Utah is going up.
Tabitha Kwayge came to the U.S. as a Sudanese refugee in 1998, living in Texas before moving to Utah. However an unstable living situation forced Kwayge to move to New York in 2013. In April, she decided to move back to Salt Lake City to be with her kids.
While Kwayge was happy to be back in the Beehive State with her family, she was shocked by how expensive the cost of living had become. She spent four months living with her ex-husband before she was able to find her apartment.
“The big difference is rent. Which is high. It wasn’t like this before,” she told the Deseret News from her two-bedroom Midvale apartment that runs her $1,500 each month.
“I would write down my name and fill out the application. Then they would just calling me and say, ‘Oh, somebody took it.”
She can’t always make rent, instead spending money on food for her three kids that live at her apartment. She couldn’t afford her internet bill this month, and for two weeks has been without Wi-Fi. She’s a temporary employee at the CookieTree factory in West Valley City, a job that doesn’t provide health insurance. And she told the Deseret News she makes too much to qualify for benefits.
Kwayge said she wants to find a new, more affordable apartment — but it’s a daunting task, especially without internet.