Landlords wanted: As Afghan refugees arrive in Conn., housing is an issue

Tom Kania is working with a community co-sponsorship group and IRIS to welcome an Afghan refugee family of up to six. The Middletown apartment has been fully furnished by IRIS and is ready for the family when they arrive. (Joe Amon/Connecticut Public)

Thomas Kania is the grandson of Polish immigrants, people who he says came to the United States for opportunity. Now Kania, a real estate investor, says it’s their experience that has motivated him to help others looking for a bit of opportunity of their own — newly arrived Afghan refugees.

“It’s basically the American spirit,” Kania said from his rental unit in Middletown’s North End. It will soon house a family of six from Afghanistan. “It’s the American spirit that my grandparents felt. It’s the American spirit that subsequent generations have been able to take advantage of in my family. So I’m really happy to have someone here who basically could take advantage of the American experience, and so we welcome them as we would any other tenant.”

Kania is just one of hundreds of landlords pitching in as Connecticut expects to welcome hundreds of refugees over the next couple of months. As military bases temporarily hosting refugees reach capacity, states are being asked to help, according to resettlement agencies. Connecticut alone is expecting more than 500 refugees — a jump since the initial 300 estimated in September. And the number could see another increase. But as Connecticut prepares for the influx, affordable housing has become a challenge.

“We know when we are resettling folks, they have been through a lot,” said Susan Schnitzer, president and CEO of the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants, one of two federally approved resettlement agencies in Connecticut. “Many of them have just grabbed their bags, fled their homes, they have been in military bases for weeks or months, and this is the first time they can sit and breathe. We are asking for landlords — large landlords, individual landlords — to contact our agencies and open your doors to refugees.”

At a recent news conference, Schnitzer said over 200 individuals have been able to resettle so far, but as the state gears up for more, there are concerns about a housing shortage.

Kania remembers it like it was yesterday when he got the call about his new tenants. He was showing his vacant unit to about 20 applicants. He said he had about 60 interested customers in total.

“I got a phone call from a broker who asked me not to hang up and explained the situation to me,” he said. “And I said, ‘Sure, come and see the apartment, see if it will work for you.’”

The call was on behalf of New Haven-based resettlement agency Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS. The unit is across the street from a local elementary school and a short walk from a public bus stop. Kania knew it would be perfect for a family new to America, so he didn’t think twice about it.

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