Charlotte’s notorious affordable housing problem hampers Afghan evacuees
Charlotte’s refugee resettlement agencies are warning of a potential roadblock for the influx of Afghans who fled the country during the Taliban takeover in August: finding an affordable place to live.
Resettlement agencies — those tasked with providing support for refugees, asylum seekers and others who flee international crises — rely on landlords for open apartments and houses where they can place displaced families.
In Charlotte, though, it will be complicated. Housing markets are tight. Apartments and houses are bought up or rented quickly, leaving few options for the agencies tasked with helping vulnerable international families who are starting new lives in the United States.
The agencies are calling for help.
Catholic Charities Diocese of Charlotte, one of two resettlement agencies in Charlotte, said they are struggling to find vacant units — despite their guarantee that rent will be paid on time.
The 300 or so Afghans coming to Charlotte will be given job training and other services to become self-sufficient. Along with that, resettlement agencies guarantee rent payments for several months.
Although the Afghans will primarily fall under a different legal distinction from ordinary refugees, a spending bill passed by Congress last week set the course for them receiving full refugee-style benefits, including housing and healthcare assistance.
Still, available homes are hard to come by.
Charlotte is already seeing a critical shortage of affordable housing. Rents have begun to spike after a brief slowdown during the pandemic.
Across the Charlotte region, new offered rents have increased upward of 20% in some areas compared to late last year, according to real estate research firm CoStar. Even before the pandemic, nearly half of Mecklenburg renters were cost-burdened, meaning they spent more than 30% of their income on housing.
That puts organizations like Refugee Support Services in a bind, said Lindsay LaPlante, the nonprofit’s executive director. She described Charlotte as a generally welcoming city with an established Afghan community, both desirable traits when looking for places to resettle people. But housing costs are a continual challenge.
Those who are arriving have fled with very little, have no rental or credit history here, and will need to find jobs to keep themselves housed.
“We don’t want to set people up to fail when those people ultimately can’t find the employment that’s going to be able to support them to pay that rent over time,” she said. “It’s one thing to get somebody in an apartment. If we were to create an emergency fund to help subsidize that rent ... that’s not a long term solution.”
Her organization is working to assemble a registry of available properties and landlords to be ready whenever the expected Afghans arrive. They’re determining whether landlords are willing to accept co-signers and guarantors to secure housing.
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Arriving in Charlotte
The Afghans arriving in Charlotte are coming from turmoil.
The Taliban overthrew the U.S.-backed government in a blitz offensive in August, overtaking the capital city of Kabul and nearly every other province.
During a mass evacuation of American citizens and allies, some Afghans were able to get on flights out of the country. Some were moved to other countries, and others came to the United States, where they’ve been housed at military bases for processing.
In the coming weeks, they’ll be moved to cities across the country. About 300 will come to Charlotte.
Those who come through Catholic Charities, one of the resettlement agencies, will arrive to a culturally-appropriate hot meal, said Sandy Buck, Catholic Charities’ regional director. They’ll also be given cash assistance, job training and English-language classes, she said.
Along with a depletion in housing stock, Buck said Catholic Charities is also running into roadblocks as apartments are bought up by out-of-state corporations that are less flexible with leasing.
“There’s a national housing crisis and it’s really bad here in Charlotte,” she said. “There’s just no units.”
“It’s not just that they’re hard to find — they’re just not there.”
A call for help
Catholic Charities and the Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency are asking people who have vacant units to contact them for leasing. Catholic Charities is searching for availability in Charlotte and Asheville.
Ahmad Shirin, a former Afghan interpreter who now lives in Charlotte, said it will be crucial to not just find housing, but to find the right housing.
Apartments or houses along bus routes provide much easier access to the city and to work, he said. Additionally, having other Afghans close-by is ideal, so that families have some familiarity with their neighbors after arriving in the United States.
Shirin worked from 2002 to 2014 as a translator for American contractors who supported the military mission. That work put his life in danger, and that of his family. He fled the country in 2014 with American support, and arrived in Charlotte with his wife and three children.
Many of his family members still in Afghanistan, though — living under constant threat of Taliban oppression. He worries that they could be targeted for their connection to him. Despite his reaching out to elected officials, he said the State Department has not provided any plan on how to get his family out of the country.
“Since the fall of the government, to be honest, I cannot go to sleep,” he said. “Every 30 minutes, every 40 minutes, I wake up.”
He said that his family who remain “are like living in a prison” as they try to lay low.
While Shirin holds out some hope for resistance fighters still opposing the Taliban — a leader of the group, the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, asked for American support in an op-ed in the Washington Post — he said the Taliban are likely to remain in control for the foreseeable future.
Those who managed to escape and are on track to arrive in Charlotte will be coming to a new world, Shirin said. He emphasized the responsibility of the United States to help them adjust after America’s 20-year occupation.
He asked officials in Charlotte to provide any aid that they can, by talking with landlords to find housing, or by helping pay for transportation for the Afghans and other refugees.
“We have seen that the U.S. citizen has stepped up already,” he said. “Even my colleagues at work are asking if they can help the newcomers.”
How to help
For information on how to help, call Catholic Charities Diocese of Charlotte at 704-370-3262.