Secure Housing for Refugees Can Help Them—and US Communities—Prosper

by Brianne Casey, an independent community development and refugee resettlement professional, Kimberly Burrowes, and Maya Brennan

Refugees resettle throughout the United States, with larger numbers moving to more populous states, such as California and Texas. But there are also high rates of resettlement per capita in Idaho, Nebraska, and North Dakota. Housing providers and counselors in urban, suburban, and rural areas can help refugees and resettlement agencies navigate challenging rental markets, understand the evidence about how housing and neighborhoods matter, and prepare for long-term success as a renter or owner.

Two weeks ago, the administration announced that the United States will admit up to 30,000 refugees this fiscal year. This number is well below the nearly 80,000 average yearly admission of previous decades. In addition, policy changes have clouded the positive outcomes of integration and refugees’ ability to thrive socially and economically as they build a new life. Ensuring access to safe, affordable, and stable housing for current and future refugees is key to fostering successful integration.

Upon arrival, refugees work with a resettlement agency to secure housing, typically a market-rate apartment for rent. They are colocated with access to public transit, employment opportunities, and educational institutions. From there, refugees can pursue various housing trajectories. Many stay in the private rental market. Others become homeowners; 57 percent of refugees in the US own their own home, with one in seven households owning their home outright. Some participate in affordable housing programs. According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) Annual Survey of Refugees 2016, 16 percent of respondents were receiving housing assistance four to six years after arrival.

By using data and working collaboratively, the housing sector has several opportunities to position refugees for success and leverage the benefits refugees bring to US communities.

The importance and benefits of ensuring that refugees have access to housing

Although the main goals of refugee resettlement are humanitarian, evidence shows that refugee integration can lead to high rates of labor participation (sometimes exceeding native-born rates), increases in income the longer refugees remain in the US, and tax contributions that outweigh resettlement costs. Sometimes, refugees can be catalysts for neighborhood revitalization and economic growth as they seek low-cost areas to buy a home and reinvest in the community. Refugees strengthen the fabric of US communities.

To ensure these outcomes are achieved, refugees need access to safe, stable, and affordable housing that situates households for economic stability. Placement into appropriate housing can lead to social connections, both within refugees’ own ethnic communities as well as the communities they move into. These connections, in addition to providing safety, security, and economic benefits, equip refugees to navigate new lives.

More data and work are needed to show the impact housing has on the integration process, but housing providers can be valuable partners. Through prior ORR funding, Mercy Housing created tools to address common housing challenges. These include guides to apartment living, US Department of Housing and Urban Development residency documentation requirements, and a guidebook for landlords. Access to language- and culturally appropriate services are also important as refugees navigate housing options. Cultural Orientation Resource Exchange developed orientation resources to inform refugees’ expectations when moving and to clarify fair housing laws.

Research demonstrates that access to decent, stable, and affordable housing can improve outcomes for adults and children and that housing location also matters for health, education, and more. As refugees regain stability in their new homes, the evidence about the importance of homes and neighborhoods can offer support to achieve positive outcomes.

How can housing data help determine where refugees are resettled?

Accurate data on refugee placements and their housing needs can help communities and housing assistance programs better respond and adjust. Data could also advance service providers’ understanding of the effects of resettlement on local communities, as well as overall refugee integration patterns.

Policymakers, resettlement agencies, and localities can use housing data to inform conversations about the most suitable communities for resettlement. Placement to a State Department–approved locality is determined by a refugee’s family ties, language resources, employment opportunities, and other factors. Average rental rates collected from local organizations are also used to determine placement. Housing resources and reports that compare wages and housing costs across a metropolitan area could offer additional support in determining viable communities, while the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing dataset opens opportunities to consider environmental health, school performance, and more.

These and other housing data can identify the best US cities for resettlement. Data can likewise inform the placement of individuals and families within these cities according to particular assets and needs, providing each household greater access to the resources and supports they will need to thrive.

What could be accomplished with better data on housing refugees?

As policymakers, practitioners, and communities define what “integration” means and identify key indicators, longitudinal studies could explore different solutions and interventions, including how housing plays a role at key moments in the resettlement process. ORR and Colorado already collect data on refugees up to five years after arrival, and others could follow suit. The Colorado data, for example, suggest ways to view housing indicators as signals of upward mobility or adaptation challenges.

Navigating homeownership or affordable housing programs is daunting for any household. Refugees face language barriers and demanding work schedules. Furthermore, most refugees receive services in their initial months in the United States before they are ready for homeownership or affordable housing options. Local resettlement agencies could explore data-sharing agreements with public or nonprofit housing providers and counseling agencies to offer follow-up assistance to refugees after the initial supports conclude. This could create an effective touchpoint when refugees would most benefit from additional housing information. As a simpler self-help option, housing authorities can list themselves on clearinghouses, such as Refugee Center Online, and provide resource guides to local resettlement agencies who provide cultural orientation to refugees within their first few months.

Housing is central to financial stability, healthy outcomes for children, and community connection and is key to propelling refugee integration. Though refugee experiences and trajectories vary, evidence shows that refugees thrive and contribute to healthy communities. Currently available data can improve decisionmaking about resettlement placement and housing, while expanded data and longitudinal studies would help tackle unanswered questions about how better housing options affect integration and how refugees can support and strengthen quality of life in US communities.

Photo by Mila Supinskaya Glashchenko/Shutterstock