With a current rental vacancy rate of just six percent, housing in the United States is difficult to secure. Several factors—credit requirements, income level, transportation needs, and family size, to name a few—further complicate the housing search for newcomers. Finding housing that fits a client’s needs, eligibility, and the housing standards set by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) in the current U.S. housing market is a challenge.
In partnership with Switchboard, Refugee Housing Solutions (RHS) offers resettlement practitioners housing search navigation tools—from guides on pre-search tasks to nontraditional housing search resources—amid these hurdles.
Before beginning the hunt, prospective renters (or case managers searching on clients’ behalf) should understand their specific housing needs. We recommend these action points:
Discuss Expectations with the Family
Refugee and other newcomer families often arrive with inflated expectations about U.S. housing, which can make the selection process quite difficult. Though it may be uncomfortable, a frank discussion with newcomers about housing availability and affordability—particularly housing that falls into their budget—is best had before the search begins. Where possible, inviting the family to help with finding a home by showing them how to search for available housing is a great way to empower them and explain the limitations of the market.
Identify Housing Needs
- Unit size: Generally, housing practitioners abide by the “two heartbeats to a room” guideline. But in certain cases, such as adolescent siblings of different genders, for example, more bedrooms may be necessary. Refugee Housing Solutions advises all resettlement practitioners to get in touch with their local Public Housing Agency (PHA) to ensure that housing complies with local occupancy limits.
- Accessibility requirements: Before the search, practitioners should also be aware of all accessibility requirements for the newcomer family. If the family needs disability accommodations, case managers can apply accessibility filters to the housing search.
- Location: Newcomer families often arrive without access to driver’s licenses or vehicles. Proximity to grocery stores, parks, and public transit is therefore even more necessary for newcomers. Case managers can access a neighborhood’s walkability, bikeability, and public transit availability through Walk Score’s assessment tool.
Determine Property Qualifications
Before beginning the search, case managers should determine which types of housing the client is qualified for. Here are five key property categories for case managers to be aware of:
- Market-Rate Properties are the “typical” non-subsidized properties on the market
- Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8) provides partial rent payments for low-income, disabled, or elderly people directly to their landlord. Choices for housing are not limited to subsidized units; participants are free to choose their housing.
- Emergency Housing Vouchers offer temporary rental housing assistance to individuals and families experiencing emergency situations
- Public Housing Program provides rental housing to eligible citizens and non-citizens, low-income individuals and families, the elderly, and persons with disabilities
- Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly Program allows seniors to live independently but with supportive activities such as cleaning, cooking, and transportation
In the midst of affordable housing scarcity, case managers should take advantage of all available housing search tools:
- As mentioned above, if a client qualifies, case managers can contact their local Public Housing Authority at the beginning of their search
- AffordableHousing.com is the largest search engine for finding income-based properties. It also provides updates on housing authority waitlists.
- Housing Collaborative aids case managers in identifying housing for people who are currently homeless or at risk of homelessness
- My Housing Search is an affordable rental housing locator
- Affordable Housing Finance annually compiles a list of the top 50 affordable housing developers. Case managers can directly inquire with these developers about rental availability.
Community Development Corporations (CDCs) are nonprofit entities whose mission is to support affordable housing development. Here are a few of the most common CDCs that often have affordable housing options:
- Catholic Charities provides emergency shelters and long-term rental assistance to seniors, low-income individuals, veterans, and those who are chronically homeless across the United States
- Volunteers of America has affordable housing options for seniors, low-income families, veterans, and people with disabilities
- Mercy Housing provides affordable housing for seniors, low-income families, veterans, formerly homeless people, and people with disabilities
- Preservation of Affordable Housing is a nonprofit whose mission is to create and sustain safe, equitable, affordable housing. The website provides a database of affordable housing units in different areas of the United States.
- Salvation Army provides rental and utility assistance to low-income people struggling to pay bills. Though the Salvation Army itself does not offer affordable housing, case managers should be aware of financial assistance programs that can serve as crucial safety nets in the resettlement process.
Housing Search Engines are the most typical avenue to rental properties. There are many unverified platforms available that could appear to be viable options, such as Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, but they could potentially put newly arrived families in danger. Therefore, it is best to stick to the platforms that verify accounts and have trustworthy listings. Here are a few of the most common, trusted search engines:
- Trulia and Apartments.com are basic and easy-to-navigate housing search tools
- Zillow and Hotpads are useful housing search tools that include several helpful filters, such as location, size, and price
- RentCafe and Rent.com are housing search tools that offer affordable housing filters
- Local housing search platforms are available in many housing markets across the U.S. These can be identified by searching “(your area) + housing search platform.” Do some research on the platforms before using them with clients.
Property Management Companies tend to be a good house-hunting resource. The following are some of the property management companies that provide affordable housing:
- Lincoln Property Company
- Pinnacle Property Management
- Alliance Residential Company
- FPI Management
If the above resources provide few helpful results, case managers should also be aware of several nontraditional resources:
- Airbnb, though often thought to be a temporary housing search engine, can also be used to identify long-term housing. Typically, case managers begin with a short-term rental for newcomer families and then inquire about the possibility of lease extension. Airbnb is an especially useful tool for larger families, as it tends to have single family units that can accommodate larger groups of people.
- 4stay is an online marketplace that connects students and interns in need of housing to local room providers. The organization offers affordable rent for short-, medium-, or long-term needs and is geared toward individuals or small families enrolled in English classes. Navigating roommate arrangements can be tricky but—in some housing markets across the U.S.—unavoidable. Be sure to take extra caution when pursuing this route and thoroughly counsel and support clients when preparing them for a potential roommate.
- Identify creative networking opportunities, such as real estate events, eviction court proceedings, or neighborhood association meetings, to connect with other housing professionals, landlords, and property management companies
- Rental Beast is a listings site on which property owners, agents, and real estate brokers post their available properties with real-time accuracy (typically properties at market rate)
- Sublet.com posts short-term, long-term, furnished, and unfurnished rental units
- Mobile modular and manufactured homes are good options for larger newcomer families as long as they meet the housing standards set forth by PRM. Case managers can visit Mobilehome.net or MH Village to find available homes of this type.
To get more tips from RHS about how to help newcomers with the housing search process, check out their other blogs: Newcomer Housing Tips: Four Steps for Outreach to Landlords and Demystifying the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Newcomers.