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For refugees, resettling in the Bay Area comes at a high price

on May 6, 2016

Hanan Rawas just marked her first year in the United States, and with it, her introduction to the high cost of resettling in Oakland and the Bay Area.

The 22-year-old Syrian refugee, who is currently studying at Merritt College in Oakland, left Damascus in September, 2012. She traveled with her parents and three siblings to Jordan where they stayed for two years and eight months before coming to the U.S. in March, 2015. They found a spot to stay in East Oakland for $1,760 a month with the help of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). However, shortly after, burglars smashed a window in their home and took a laptop and $1,000 cash they had saved. The family started looking for other places to stay, noticing that many of their friends had left for cities like Sacramento.

“It was so hard,” Rawas said. “I tried every day on Zillow and many websites. We didn’t get one house because we needed the highest credit score and [a] higher income.” In many housing situations, landlords asked for not only a high credit score and but a monthly income as high as three times over the rental price, as well as a lease co-signer and application fees—all things difficult to obtain for refugee families.

They were finally able to settle for a $2,000-a-month two-bedroom house in North Oakland through an empathetic landlord they met at Berkeley Masjid, a local mosque.

The United States government gives a one-time grant of $1,975 per person seeking refuge in the U.S. upon arrival and $1,125 is supposed to be spent on housing costs, but in the Bay Area that sum may not last very long. Oakland is the fourth most expensive housing market in the country, and has the fastest growing income inequality, according to the Brookings Institution.

According to the U.S. Department of State Refugee Processing Center, 2,654 people fleeing their countries were admitted to California between October of last year and March, 2016. This is about 9 percent of the total refugees that came to the U.S.

While the majority made cities such as Glendale, Sacramento and San Diego their homes, many also came to the Bay Area. In 2015, about 11 percent of the total number of refugees in California ended up in the Bay Area, with the bulk of those coming to Oakland, according to statistics provided by the department.

On top of the usual challenges of settling in a new country—including language, cultural and emotional adjustments—refugees also have to battle rising housing costs and a scarcity of affordable housing. According to Lila Katz, a program coordinator for the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay, 95 percent of the $1,125 given by the government to each individual is spent on rent in the first three months.

The IRC’s Northern California Chapter Director Karen Ferguson said her organization’s role is to meet each family at the airport and secure housing for them, ideally for 6 months to a year. She said finding affordable housing remains the biggest challenge for the people she serves.

“Our hope is that they are not moving around a lot at first, as they have many other things to adjust to as well,” Ferguson said. The Refugee Cash Assistance service, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and a fast track early employment program are some services that refugees can use to fund their first months of living in the U.S., said Ferguson, adding that much of that goes to rent. Fast track early employment programs are sometimes offered through community and technical colleges to train people for a job.

Katz, who sought refuge in the U.S. 25 years ago after immigrating from Ukraine, said she agreed that many of the families she works with aren’t in a position to deal with the region’s housing crisis. Many of them, she added, are seeking refuge from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Africa and the former Soviet Union and are “highly traumatized, either mentally or physically.”

Chloe Chaudhry is a volunteer at the San Ramon Valley Islamic Center and organizes teams to set up apartments before refugees arrive. She said that even once housing is secured, issues between tenants and landlords still arise. She’s noticed many reasons for why rent money doesn’t make it to landlords on time. Sometimes refugees get signed up for government services, but it takes longer than expected for the money to arrive or due to bureaucratic errors, they aren’t given the amount they were promised.

Sometimes the problem isn’t with the tenant, but with a landlord who simply wants to raise the rent. Other times, landlords aren’t able to compromise on their rules. For instance, they won’t accept cash or take checks imprinted with other people’s names, and this can be a problem for recently resettled refugees without a stable bank account, who need to use government-issued checks or pay using accounts belonging to friends or family members.

Despite the high cost of housing in Oakland in particular, Chaudhry said she believes that refugees are able to resettle here because of the services available and the welcoming political and social climate.

Community networking—through ethnic, cultural and religious groups such as the mosque that helped the Rawas family—are helping refugees remain in the Bay Area. And sometimes people in the real estate industry lend a hand, too.

Vince Nguyen of Mekong Realty & Mortgage Inc. manages properties mainly in Oakland. He works with IRC organizers to match families with a place to stay when there are vacancies. While new tenants usually are subject to a screening process, Nguyen said he is able to be lenient with this requirement when working with refugees. Often, where others are unable to be flexible, he added, the IRC must step in and take care of much of the screening procedure.

Most of the refugees living in Nguyen’s properties come from Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and India, he said. The most common problems Nguyen reports experiencing with his 20 current refugee tenants are language barriers and the occasional failure to submit payments on time—often because they don’t understand the process.

However, Nguyen said he understands their situation because his own family immigrated to the U.S. 20 years ago. “We were refugees once,” he said.


  1. Noreen on May 25, 2016 at 11:33 am

    It’s so important for us to remain empathetic towards the trials of others and extend as much of a helping hand as we’re able. I’m glad Oakland is providing the available resources to assist in transitioning during an already difficult time.

  2. Gail Lockman on December 5, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    I’m interested in your organization. I would like to volunteer. At some point, I may have a bedroom available for a student. But I would like to take your training first. Where should I begin?

  3. […] For refugees, resetting in the Bay Area comes at a high price by Atia Musazay […]

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