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Refugees Rely On Host Families As Seattle-Area Rents Rise

A pot of lentils simmers in the kitchen of an upscale home in Burien. Two teen brothers and their two younger sisters keep watch.

They’re Eritrean refugees, part of a family of nine staying with Carleen Kennedy. Kennedy has opened her home to refugees since 1975.

Wherever there are wars, refugees follow, she said. “We’ve had people from eastern Europe, South Asia, Somalia, Congo.”

World Relief Seattle, a refugee resettlement agency, wants to find more hosts like Kennedy, because affordable housing has become tough to find in the Seattle area.

“It’s like a misery right now, seeing people come through and not being able to have a place to stay,” said Medard Ngueita, the resettlement manager with World Relief. “It’s a very desperate situation. We don’t know when this will stop.”

World Relief and other agencies are recruiting host homes any way they can – at churches or community meetings.

But Ngueita wants to add a new layer to the “host home” concept. He wants to sign up homeowners who can offer a room, a backyard apartment or furnished basement – as a long-term rental. Ngueita says this would increase housing options for refugees and help them build a rental history for when they make their more permanent move.

The new strategy could also help the refugees who work with Cordelia Revells, a case worker with Jewish Family Service.

“Typically if I approach a new landlord about the possibility of renting to a recently arrived family, they will balk at the lack of income, the lack of employment, lack of rental history,” Revells said. “Most of the time you hear no.”

On a recent day in Kent, Revells waited while an Iranian couple signed the lease at their first apartment here.

A few relatives helped them move in the same day, lugging a flowery couch, a mattress and box spring up three flights of stairs. Revells has placed many new refugees in housing around here.

“Finding housing is definitely the most stressful part of my job,” she said. “Just because it’s essential that they have somewhere to stay right away.”

Revells snagged this one-bedroom unit for $865 a month, including utilities. She called it a great deal.

She gestured toward a freshly painted complex across the street. She used to place refugees there, but then new management took over, raised rents and stopped accepting her clients.

Landlords can afford to be choosy. Demand for units is up as high rents near Seattle push more people to the suburbs.

Real estate data supports Revell’s experience. Apartment vacancies in Kent have steadily dried up in the past few years, while prices climb.

When Revells strikes out, her clients sometimes crash at hotels. But that’s an expensive last-resort that burns through a refugee family’s limited cash assistance.

So she searches for housing options farther south, toward Tacoma. She's even teamed up with Nguetia at World Relief to approach landlords together and brainstorm how to get through this housing crisis.

Back in Burien, Kennedy has a message for potential hosts: “I would have to encourage people who have children and have really busy schedules to know that they can work this in.”

She continued, “I just feel this is God’s calling on my life. That’s been confirmed to me so many times in so many different ways.”

She engaged her guests in a game around the kitchen table, holding up English flashcards.

The kids shouted out: lion, airplane, elephant, car, bus, dog, ice cream.

This is the classroom for now; the children won't be enrolled in school until the family knows where they’ll be living.

Their mother Senbetu played along, as a toddler slept on her lap.

Speaking in Arabic, with Ngueita as her interpreter, she offered little explanation about why her family left Eritrea. But she said they spent 33 years in a refugee camp. All seven of her children were born there.

“She’s thankful that they are now in America, in a safe place,” Ngueita said.

And she said what has surprised her most so far is the woman sitting across the table, her host mom.

“She’s very open and welcoming and so good to them,” Senbetu said.

Two months after they arrived here, her family moved to a four-bedroom apartment in a suburb of Tacoma.

The rent is close to $1,500 a month.

Refugee resettlement agencies in King County:

Why you can trust KUOW