But there aren’t enough homes in the area those families can afford with the limited federal assistance most are eligible to receive: $2,275 per individual for housing and other basic services, an amount that is meant to last 90 days.
“It’s a challenge,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, chief executive of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, predicting that some families will wind up doubling or tripling up in single-family homes.
“We’re advising people that Northern Virginia may not be the best place because there is such a saturation [in the housing market] and there are high rental prices,” Vignarajah said. “But sometimes, people, that’s the only place they know. That’s where they will go.”
So far, about 1,300 Afghan recipients of special immigrant visas — typically given to people who worked as interpreters for the U.S. government — have settled in Virginia since last fall, according to U.S. State Department data. In Maryland, 330 Afghan recipients of these visas arrived during the same period, while none have settled in the District.
Thousands more evacuees are expected to start moving out of the military installations in larger numbers sometime in the fall. Some of those people applied for special immigrant visas but have not been approved. Most of them did not work for the U.S. government and were granted “humanitarian parole” status by the federal government.
The designation means they will each get $1,225 in cash, while an additional $1,050 per evacuee will go to the resettlement agencies for job training and other services over a three-month period, federal officials said.
The Biden administration wants Congress to pass legislation that would allow those families to receive the same amount of long-term support afforded to traditional refugees and special immigrant visa recipients. Those groups get the $2,275 over 90 days, plus food stamps, Medicaid, child care and long-term counseling.
Department of Homeland Security officials and the resettlement groups have been encouraging Afghan families to move to parts of the country where their aid can go further — part of a long-standing process for refugee placement that factors in local housing markets, job prospects and family connections.
But many of the evacuees have family ties in Northern Virginia and Northern California, which have become home to the country’s two largest Afghan communities after two decades of war in Afghanistan.
The magnitude of the ongoing airlift out of that country has further exposed a dire lack of affordable housing in both regions, affordable housing advocates say.
The evacuation out of Kabul included multigenerational households — sometimes parents, children and grandparents, totaling as many as 10 people — who now need homes with three or four bedrooms, aid groups say.
In the Washington region, those homes are in short supply, particularly to renters on a limited income who have no rental history, no credit and no jobs.
The average rent for a three-bedroom unit in the region is $2,263, according to rentdata.org, a group that tracks housing markets. For a four-bedroom unit, the monthly cost averages $2,742.
Michelle Krocker, director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, said townhouses and single-family homes that might have been cheap enough to rent to those families have lately been snatched up by institutional investors seeking to flip the properties for a profit.
“I just don’t know where these families are going to go,” she said. “I really think local governments are going to be overwhelmed and community support agencies are going to be overwhelmed.”
Religious organizations, volunteer groups and some businesses have stepped in to help, some offering free housing.
On Tuesday, a coalition of government leaders, resettlement groups and Afghan activists launched a national fundraising campaign called Welcome.US, geared in part toward long-term housing costs for the Afghan families.
“We have a moral obligation to help them,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said during a news conference announcing the campaign, noting that many of the evacuees had risked their lives by helping the U.S. military and other government agencies during two decades of war.
Kenn Speicher, who helps run the NoVa Friends of Refugees Facebook group, said about 100 people have offered to temporarily host Afghan families in their homes.
Airbnb and some hotel chains have issued lines of credit to local resettlement agencies of as much as $70,000 for temporary housing, part of a broader effort to help Afghan families around the world.
But the burden of finding permanent homes in the Washington region has fallen on the resettlement groups.
Jessica Estrada, director of newcomer services for Catholic Charities of the Arlington Diocese, said her organization has approached landlords in communities where the housing costs are not as high, such as portions of Prince William County and Stafford counties and Fredericksburg.
Ironically, the recent end of emergency eviction protections in Virginia has made it easier to find homes, Estrada said. There are still some state protections in place for renters who have endured hardships related to the pandemic. But the resumption of some evictions “has moved the housing market a little bit,” Estrada said.
“It’s going better,” she said. “Not ideal still, but it’s better than it was maybe a couple of months ago.”
Local officials said they are working with resettlement agencies to find available options, while ensuring that the arriving families are able to enroll their children in schools.
“We already have refugee families who are registering with our schools,” said Justin Wilson, mayor of Alexandria. “And we’re working to make them feel at home.”
Some companies specializing in affordable housing say they are willing to rent to Afghan evacuees.
Shelley Murphy, chief executive of Wesley Housing in Northern Virginia, said her company will have about 300 new apartments — with two and three bedrooms — coming online next year that could work for those families.
More immediately, she said, Wesley Housing has told resettlement groups that it is willing to work with them whenever a new vacancy comes up in its existing buildings.
“We’ve got to be careful with how we do it,” said Murphy, citing federal fair housing laws that prohibit favoring one group over another. “But we certainly want to be in position to help.”
Vignarajah said the Lutheran resettlement group has been working with landlords in the Alexandria area, where there are large apartment complexes that are already home to refugees and newly arrived immigrants.
She has also been looking for ways to replicate a program that her group has in Albuquerque that pairs newly arrived refugees with Habitat for Humanity, where they build their own homes.
One idea is to base that effort in Baltimore, where there are rows of dilapidated townhouses sitting empty in some neighborhoods, Vignarajah said.
“It’s not an immediate solution, but it is a long-term strategy,” she said. “Rather than slicing and dicing the existing pie, how can we grow that pie in terms of expanding the existing housing inventory?”