Salt Lake County faces refugee-housing crisis

by MATT BERGSTROM

At the end of 2007, Salt Lake County Community Resources and Development commissioned a report on the housing situation for refugees within the county. The report, published in December 2007 by Wikstrom Economic and Planning Consultants Inc., revealed a dire situation.

According to the report, Salt Lake is what is known as a “highly-impacted community.” When compared to other counties of relatively similar size, Salt Lake has resettled a disproportionately large share of refugees.

The report gives a number of reasons for this discrepancy. Refugees tend to be very successful here due to Salt Lake’s constantly expanding job market. Simply put, more jobs means the county needs more people to fill them.

Perhaps the main reason is the family-friendly atmosphere of the city. Many refugees who come to the U.S. have large families, of which Salt Lake is traditionally more accepting. Almost one-fourth of the families resettled in Salt Lake in 2007 had 5 or more people in them; with some having as many as 11.

Resettling large families in Salt Lake also leads to large numbers of secondary resettlements. This is when a person, or group of people, decides to relocate to a city to be closer to family after having already been resettled in another part of the country.

But with a steadily growing job market and a near-constant stream of new residents the vacancy rates in apartments in Salt Lake is low. And when vacancy rates are low, rent tends to go up. This is especially true of larger units that are needed to house the larger families being drawn here.

According to the Wikstrom report, an annual income of more than $24,000 per year is required to afford an average priced, one-bedroom apartment in Salt Lake. The average refugee works a minimum wage job and earns about half that amount. This means multiple earners are needed in the home just to afford the cheapest possible option.

Adaptation to apartment life is another housing problem facing refugees. Many who come to the U.S. are coming from refugee camps in Africa or Asia, and often have never lived anywhere else. These camps are not always equipped with the modern conveniences of a Salt Lake apartment.

“Sometimes you have to teach people how to use a light switch,” said Patrick Poulin, resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake. He and his caseworkers assist refugees assimilating to their new surroundings.

“Imagine having to teach someone that, then have to teach them about a lease, or paying utilities,” he said.

This concern resonates with other refugee care organizations. At a recent refugee service provider network meeting, held by the Utah Department of Workforce Services, housing problems ranging from cooking in apartments with open flames to a bedbug infestation were discussed.

Situations like these make landlords wary of allowing other refugees to rent their units in the future.

Fortunately, local government has not turned a blind eye to the situation. Early in 2008, the Department of Workforce Services opened the Refugee Services Office. It was created with the intent of coordinating the many agencies and nonprofit organizations that work to help refugees in and around Salt Lake.

Gerald Brown, the director of the Refugee Services Office, feels the number of refugees coming to Salt Lake is not going to slow down any time soon. “People will not stop coming here as long as they can get here what they can’t get there,” Brown said.

Salt Lake City has also begun to explore other solutions for the housing crisis. In January 2008, just after the Wikstrom report was released, the Community Resources and Development division of the Utah Department of Human Services assembled a committee to find a solution. The committee, comprised of refugee service caregivers and local business owners, came up with an idea to build temporary housing specifically designed for recently resettled refugees.

The facility, which is being referred to as “welcome housing,” would not only be a place for refugees to live for the first year or two in America, but would also provide onsite casework assistance with a goal of eventual acculturation. This staff would include people to help teach refugees the basics of apartment living in a safe atmosphere where they can develop these skills before having to find permanent housing on their own.

The projected 50-unit project is still far from fruition, said Dan Lofgren, president and CEO of Cowboy Partners, a real estate development and property management company based in Holladay. Lofgren is also a member of the state housing committee.

Until somebody steps up with funding for the project, he said it would never be anything more than an idea. But even money won’t permanently fix the problem.

“There aren’t resources available to build our way out of this,” he said.

The Wikstrom report came to a similar conclusion. According to the report, there needs to be better training to teach refugees good renter practices. Availability of housing is not a panacea for the rest of a refugee’s life as a U.S. resident.