In Rochester rental crunch, Afghan refugees struggle to find housing

A man leans on a hanger full of clothes.
Autumn Ridge Church executive pastor Otis Hall with some of the coats the church collects and donates in Rochester, Minn., Nov. 30.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

John Meyers can remember a time when finding housing for refugees was the least of his concerns as he and his team at Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota worked to settle newcomers in the region. 

"Five to six years ago, we could find apartments, we had landlords that we could call them up and the next day we could have a unit available for us,” said Meyers, director of refugee resettlement.  

That’s changed due to a complicated mix of factors, said Meyers. 

During the Trump administration, far fewer refugees were allowed into the United States. In the years before Donald Trump took office, the group resettled on average 150 people a year, dropping to an average of 45 people annually after Trump’s election. 

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Bottlenecks created by the pandemic also stunted refugee resettlement. Both these factors have made it difficult for Catholic Charities to fire up old relationships with local landlords. 

Meanwhile, affordable housing remains scarce, and some local landlords have sold their properties to out-of-state companies as Rochester's housing market booms under the Destination Medical Center, a massive economic development plan aimed at making the city more of a medical destination. 

“We had built up those relations, and then all of a sudden, the company gets sold, the apartment complex gets sold. And you're dealing with a different office, and that has made it such a challenge,” Meyer said. 

A man organizes a storage room.
John Meyers, the director of refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota shows a small room full of items to offer families settling into the area Tuesday.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

New to town, but no place to live

It's a challenge laid bare by an influx of Afghan refugees seeking a new life after fleeing the Taliban regime in their home country earlier this year. Meyers expects his team will welcome 20 Afghan families — a total of 80 people — by February of 2022. 

Many of them will settle in Rochester, the region’s economic hub, because there are ample jobs, good schools, public transportation, and even grocery stores that sell familiar products from home, Meyers said.

But when refugees arrive, they face a mash-up of temporary housing options, like hotels, until Catholic Charities can secure permanent housing. Meyers says complicating matters are stricter income requirements for new tenants — like proving income to pay three months rent before signing a lease, something refugees don't usually have. 

"When you start breaking down those numbers, it becomes very untenable to get some of these apartments based on the income threshold that they've set,” he said. 

Meyers said his colleagues in other parts of the state say they're seeing similar housing challenges that affect all renters, but inflict a particular burden on housing refugees. 

Unique housing dynamics

Up to 6,000 new apartments have been built in Rochester since 2016, largely in response to the city’s economic development efforts, said David Dunn, housing director for Olmsted County. 

But Dunn said those new builds are responding to a uniquely Rochester clientele: People seeking short-term housing while they get care at Mayo Clinic and people who make enough money to lease market-rate housing.

Housing dynamics that exist everywhere “certainly have their own little twist because of where we're at here in Olmsted County in Rochester, in our connection to Mayo,” he said. 

And affordable housing remains scarce, with half the renters in Olmsted County paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent, Dunn said. 

Meanwhile, he said landlords have become pickier about who they rent to in part because they've felt burned by an eviction ban in place during the pandemic that made it harder to eject tenants who didn't pay rent. Dunn said raising the bar on income requirements is reflective of that.

“And with all of those things, we're still seeing, you know, the lack of affordable housing, it's harder and harder for people to find a place to live,” Dunn said. 

New funding and new partnerships

A new $15 million effort backed by Mayo Clinic, the city and county is aimed at bridging the affordable housing gap in Rochester. 

Meanwhile, Catholic Charities is leaning into new partnerships with local volunteers — including a group recently formed at Autumn Ridge Church.

"Our responsibility is to make connections with [refugees] and begin to help them ease into life in the city,” said Otis Hall, the church’s executive pastor of community and engagement.

That can include everything from helping get their kids enrolled in school to navigating the local bus system.

But it also includes using connections to help find housing. 

“[The] Rochester housing market is crazy for anyone, it doesn't matter whether you're coming in as a doctor at Mayo, or you're coming in as a refugee,” Hall said.

So far, Hall says his group has been able to find housing for one family, and they're working to find more. 

But Meyers said it's in the best interest of Rochester — which wants newcomers to fill new jobs and diversify its population — to find more sustainable solutions to its housing crunch.

“Everyone's begging for more people to come into work here. You know, there's jobs up at the Mayo Clinic. There's jobs everywhere,” he said.

But when housing is a barrier, Meyers says, bringing new people to Rochester — whether they were born in the United States or not — becomes even harder.