San Francisco Chronicle
State housing costs a big barrier for Afghan refugees
California is home to some of the largest Afghan communities in the U.S., with particularly large concentrations in the Bay Area.
Yet no city in the region, or the state, is included in the U.S. State Department’s list of 19 placement options for Afghans and Iraqis who hold Special Immigrant Visas, which are available to people who worked for the U.S. government and are facing threats as a result of their employment. The main reason: the cost of housing.
The following quote comes from the U.S. Department of State’s “Resettlement Options” page:
“Please be aware that the cost of living and the availability of housing can vary significantly in different locations across the United States. The Washington, DC metro area including northern Virginia and some cities in California are very expensive places to live, and it can be difficult to find reasonable housing and employment. Any resettlement benefits you receive may not comfortably cover the cost of living in these areas.”
The government adds that people who have strong ties — familial or otherwise — to expensive cities can still be placed there. The State Department is also temporarily expanding placement options as more people flee Talibancontrolled Afghanistan, according
“That’s where people want to go — near their own people.”
to Daniel Binder, a department spokesperson.
The average rent in Fremont, where a portion of its Centerville district is dubbed “Little Kabul” with multiple Afghan businesses located there, is more than $2,900, more than double that of Phoenix’s, according to August 2021 data from Apartmentlist.
As one of the largest Afghan communities in the U.S., many support networks specific to helping Afghan families, including the Afghan Coalition, are based there. In contrast, Phoenix has fewer than 3,000 people of Afghan ancestry, according to the latest estimate from the American Community Survey, but is among the State Department’s resettlement options.
Government agencies partner with resettlement agencies, such as the International Rescue Committee, to help place incoming refugees and special visa holders, Binder of the State Department said. They also offer various levels of assistance, one of which is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement benefits, which provides eligible people with housing, health care and other help.
The State Department offers the following warning for those considering settling in the Washington, D.C., metro area and cities in California: “Unless you have close relatives or friends in these areas who are able to provide financial support and housing until you find employment that covers your living expenses, it is best to allow a resettlement agency to choose a suitable location for you.”
Specifically regarding the Sacramento area, the State Department says a critical housing shortage there has led to limitations in resettlement benefits.
Money may stretch farther in other places across the U.S., but the most recent data shows California is still the top destination for refugees and special visa holders recently arriving from Afghanistan. More than 1,800 people
arrived from Afghanistan to California between October 2020 and July 2021.
Farhad Yousafzai, a Sacramento-based insurance agent who runs the community group Afghans Living in San Francisco Bay Area, said he was drawn to the Bay Area because of its existing Afghan community, which supported him when he came to the U.S. in 2014 with a Special Immigrant Visa. “That’s where people want to go — near their own people,” he said.
He benefited from the support networks and even the shops in Fremont, where he said his resettlement agency
Farhad Yousafzai, insurance agent who runs community group Afghans Living in San Francisco Bay Area
took him to when he first arrived. So he tries to give back by offering his help where he can; he became an insurance agent because he realized there weren’t many Afghan agents in the area. “This way, I can help the community, protect them financially,” he said.
Though cost-of-living concerns are real, the State Department says it recognizes the importance of ties with family and friends from home for people in their new home, Binder, its spokesperson said. “Placement of individual SIV holders and families prioritizes reunification with U.S.-based family and friends, and also considers needs and characteristics of each individual and family.”