Finding affordable housing is a known challenge for many in the U.S. due to several factors including housing shortages, housing poverty, and underfunded assistance programs. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the United States has a shortage of 6.8 million affordable housing units for extremely low income families. 70% of all extremely low income families spend more than half their income on rent, and over 580,000 people experience homelessness every day.
Asylum seekers face unique challenges and barriers to finding housing when they arrive in the U.S. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) claims that “refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and migrants are particularly vulnerable to a range of human rights violations, including the right to adequate housing.”
In trying to find housing, asylum seekers face many barriers including not knowing where to start, the unavailability of safe and affordable housing, and the lack of documents and materials necessary to obtain housing.
Not Knowing Where to Start
“When we arrived in the US, we lived with an aunt and her family. It was crowded and after a few months, we started to feel like we were overstaying our welcome,” explained *Miguel and *Ana, two of ALIRP’s Partners. “We wanted to find a house of our own, but we didn’t know where to start looking. We didn’t know how to learn about housing that was available…we didn’t have a car or a driver's license to go look for housing…we didn’t know what to do.”
This situation is not unusual among asylum seekers. When migrants request asylum after crossing the U.S. border, they may be released from Customs and Border Patrol custody to await their immigration hearings from within the country. When they are released, they may be transported by nonprofit or religious groups, or they may find their own means of transportation to a family member or sponsor already living in the U.S. Once the migrants reach their destinations they are effectively on their own because asylum seekers are ineligible to receive assistance or services, including housing assistance, from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Lack of knowledge about the housing market in the resettlement country often hampers migrants’ search for housing.
Lack of Necessary Documents and Materials
In order to rent a house or apartment, renters are typically required to provide the landlord or property manager with a number of documents and materials including valid photo identification, proof of employment and income, background checks, rental history and references, Social Security Numbers, and credit reports. Although required documents may vary from landlord to landlord, the requirements of photo identification and proof of income are typically non-negotiable.
The requirement of photo identification creates a barrier for many asylum-seeking individuals who often do not possess identification documents such as passports and photo IDs. In the case of *Nicolás, an ALIRP Partner, the Customs and Border Patrol agent he encountered confiscated his Honduran ID. In the case of *Julián and *Karla, they did not have passports when they fled Honduras and were unable to secure an appointment to obtain one for months due to backups at the Honduran consulate in Atlanta.
“We couldn’t open a bank account without a passport,” explained *Karla, “and without a bank account, we couldn’t prove our income or how much money we had.” Asylum seekers face additional challenges proving their income due to the length of time they must wait before applying for and receiving a work permit. Per USCIS policy, one must wait 150 days after filing their asylum application before they are eligible to apply for employment authorization. The current processing time for employment authorization applications based on a pending asylum application currently ranges from 11.5 to 13.5 months. Thus, any work they might do in order to survive and provide for their families likely occurs under the table and without proof of income.
Asylum seekers in Alabama must have valid work authorization before they are able to apply for or obtain driver’s licenses or Social Security Numbers. Lacking a driver’s license and Social Security number makes the ability to secure housing even more difficult if asylum seekers do not already have their passports and proof of income.
Lack of Safe and Affordable Housing
Although an affordable rent for a minimum wage worker would be $377 per month, the Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Alabama is currently $849 per month. This means that, in order to afford this level of rent and utilities, a household must earn an hourly wage of $16.32, which is $9.07 above the state minimum wage. Those with extremely low incomes are the most cost burdened by rent prices: 86% of extremely low income renter households spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs, and 67% spend more than half of their income on housing costs. Most of the asylum seeking Partners served by ALIRP have extremely low incomes and face significant challenges in finding affordable housing.
Those who do find affordable housing often only find it in poor condition and in underserved neighborhoods. Miguel and Ana, for example, were only able to find affordable housing in a rural town about 45 minutes outside of Birmingham. Here, they have fewer options for public transportation to alleviate the burden of not having a driver’s license, making it difficult to get to and from work. For Nicolás, in only two years of living in the U.S. he has witnessed two episodes of gun violence merely a few yards from his house. Due to the lack of other viable housing options, he is not able to move his family to safety. These are only some of the difficulties asylum seekers face in finding safe and affordable housing.
Breaking Down the Barriers
ALIRP assists partners in overcoming several barriers associated with finding and maintaining housing. When a partner reaches out to ALIRP or is referred to us by Alabama’s State Refugee Coordinator, Inspiritus, ALIRP conducts an intake assessment to determine the individual or family’s needs. If housing is determined to be one of their needs, ALIRP assists them in a variety of ways, including:
Seeking asylum in the U.S. is no easy feat, and those who take on the challenge show strength, bravery, and determination every step of the way. Show that you stand with asylum seekers in Birmingham and across the globe by joining ALIRP in our efforts to support them. To do so, consider volunteering your time, making a financial contribution, or sharing this article with a friend. Every action to remove barriers while seeking asylum is necessary, and we hope you will take action today.
*All names have been changed to protect the identities of our partners.
Tenants Without Rights: Situating the Experiences of New Immigrants in the U.S. Low-Income Housing Market
National Low Income Housing Coalition: The Problem
Access to Safe and Affordable Housing
Affordable Rent for Low Income Households: Alabama State Report