Vermont’s Housing Crisis Complicates Afghan Refugees’ Resettlement | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont’s Housing Crisis Complicates Afghan Refugees’ Resettlement

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Published December 15, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.


Mohammad showing a photo he took of the American side of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Mohammad showing a photo he took of the American side of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan

Just before Thanksgiving, Ben Carlson, an Essex Junction resident who volunteers with refugees, got an unusual request. The Vermont office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants needed someone to drive a large family of Afghan refugees from a Williston hotel to their new residence. 

Typically, that new residence would be an apartment in Chittenden County. Carlson's task, however, was to drive the family to another temporary home, a ski condo in the Mad River Valley. 

Following the hourlong trek into the state's interior on a dark, snowy evening with four kids in his car, Carlson noticed that their mother, who did not speak much English, was distraught. She wanted to return to the hotel, he recalled. Carlson didn't blame her. To a family in a foreign land, a small Airbnb in rural Vermont isn't exactly a vacation, no matter how many volunteers pledge a helping hand. It can mean isolation, uncertainty and further stress. There must be more opportunities here in Chittenden County, Carlson thought, so we don't have to move them as far, so they're not bouncing around as much..

"We sort of had to drop them off," he said. "And we did have folks ... coming in to check on them, making sure that they're safe and they have food. But it still felt like, you know, we could do better."

For the past month, officials and volunteers involved in Vermont's resettlement efforts have been scrambling to secure housing for the Afghan refugees who are beginning to touch down. Making arrangements for the sudden swell was bound to be difficult in Vermont's historically tight housing market. The task has been especially overwhelming for a resettlement agency that is seemingly under-resourced.

Newly arrived Afghans are assigned to host families or placed in whatever short-term rentals USCRI staff and their network of volunteers can scrounge up. While some have moved into apartments or have move-in dates, many still don't. 

"USCRI has traditionally been very good at finding housing, even when the market is a little tight," said Tracy Dolan, the recently appointed director of Vermont's State Refugee Office, which helps coordinate resources. "But this is a unique time." 

The Vermont office of the national nonprofit initially secured U.S. Department of State approval to resettle up to 100 Afghan refugees but later increased the ceiling to 130. A separate, new resettlement office in Brattleboro affiliated with the Ethiopian Community Development Council — a Virginia-based nonprofit that works with refugees from many countries — will be seeking homes for an additional 100 or so Afghans in the coming months.

The nonprofits are responsible for finding housing for those refugees; federal funding typically covers the first few months' rent. The director of USCRI Vermont, Amila Merdzanovic, did not respond to several interview requests but described the task during an October town hall as the agency's "No. 1 challenge."

"I think we all understand that we are facing a housing crisis in the state," she said. 

Last week, the lobby of the USCRI's Colchester office was piled high with donations of clothes and other household items waiting to be processed. A USCRI Vermont Facebook post asking for donations on Giving Tuesday seemed to suggest that rollbacks on refugee resettlement during the Trump administration were still hampering the nonprofit. "After years of cuts, USCRI now faces significant challenges with being able to serve the large numbers of Afghans arriving each day," the post reads. 

Roughly 75 Afghans had arrived in Vermont as of last week, Dolan said. Though their resettlement has been expected since September, the window for USCRI and its partners to arrange housing is much shorter. During this first round, officials have typically received just a few days' notice ahead of each arrival, with no forewarning as to the size of each family unit. In one hectic stretch, 19 people arrived over 48 hours, Dolan said. 

Housing solutions are being worked out one at a time, day by day. Several individuals and organizations who have contributed temporary housing weren't willing to discuss the arrangements out of concern for refugees' privacy or safety. 

Last week, Seven Days visited several Afghan men at their new apartment in Burlington's South End. The newspaper is not identifying them by their full names because they have family and friends in Afghanistan whom the Taliban could target. One of the men, a former Afghan government official named Mohammad, had been expecting to resettle in Boston last month, based on papers he was given, but ended up with a plane ticket to Burlington. 

USCRI met him at Burlington International Airport and took him to the home of a host family, who made him dinner. He stayed there for a few days before relocating to a different family's house for a few more. In early December, he and three other men moved into an apartment that USCRI had secured for them. They're living there on a yearlong lease, one of Mohammad's housemates said.

In a small, sparsely decorated living room, Mohammad and the men eagerly pointed out a houseplant and ceramic tea set they'd been gifted upon their arrival. They thanked USCRI staff and volunteers for making them feel welcome during an extraordinarily difficult moment in their lives. 

"They gave us much love," Mohammad said. 

After his experience with the anxious Afghan family, Carlson, a marketing-savvy brand strategist, decided to use his social media accounts to encourage others to consider housing new arrivals. He blasted out a USCRI staff email looking for host families to his nearly 1,200 Instagram followers. Carlson's posts caught the attention of one of his friends.

That friend knew Jordan Fronk, an Austin, Texas, woman who was about to close on a second home in Charlotte. Fronk had plans to rent out the house in January but offered to open it in December to a refugee family free of charge. The plan came together "in literally less than 24 hours," Fronk said. An Afghan family moved in the same day that Fronk closed on the house.

Host arrangements like this might normally last no longer than two weeks, but Dolan said they expect some may stretch as long as six. The severity of the housing crisis in Chittenden County has also prompted resettlement officials to look elsewhere in Vermont. They are eyeing Washington and Rutland counties in particular as places that could foster small enclaves of Afghan refugees, according to Dolan. 

But there are trade-offs to consider. "The downside is, are people going to stay if they don't feel like they're tucked into a community?" Dolan asked. A small number of refugees left Vermont within a few days of arriving, according to the state.

It's particularly hard to find available three-bedroom units, which is the size that some of the larger arriving families need to be comfortable. And units that are available to refugees aren't always up to code. Asked about the quality of the housing being secured for arriving Afghans, Dolan referred to recent coverage by Seven Days and Vermont Public Radio of substandard apartments that refugees had occupied, owned by landlord Rick Bove, but couldn't say whether USCRI was continuing to place refugees in his buildings. 

"We do have some really great landlords. But, of course, we also know that there are landlords who don't always put the effort into the upkeep that we would like to see," she said. "Every family deserves respect, in terms of having a safe and comfortable place to live, and so all we can do is continue to work with the landlords we have and make resources available where they are available."

The new Ethiopian Community Development Council affiliate in Brattleboro, called the Multicultural Community Center, has had more time to prepare, as its Afghan refugees aren't expected until early January. Director Joe Wiah said the center has worked with subsidized housing providers and private landlords to secure 18 apartments for the pending arrivals in Windsor, Windham and part of Bennington counties. That's nearly half of the 38 apartments they expect to need, he said. The center will also use host families and has arranged for temporary housing on the campus of the School for International Training.

"We have some private landlords that have reached out to us and said, 'I have this apartment available,' or 'This apartment will be ready at this time,'" Wiah said. "That has been helping us a bit."

In Burlington, Mohammad and his three compatriots are squeezed into two bedrooms and share a small kitchen. Now they're turning their focus to all the other challenges that lie ahead as they build a life in Vermont.

Mohammad has two immediate goals, he said. He wants to improve his English within three months. He also wants to find a job.  

The original print version of this article was headlined "Home, Sweet Temporary Home"