Managing Newcomers’ Housing Expectations

Amidst rising rental prices, increasing application competition, and a dearth of affordable housing stock, the housing search is difficult. Preconceived notions newcomers may have about the U.S. housing market can further complicate the search for case managers or housing coordinators and the newcomers themselves. 

Below are a few of the most important facts about housing in the United States to communicate to newcomers before and during the search. Refugee Housing Solutions recommends discussing these facts with newcomers shortly after their arrival—during cultural orientation or housing counseling sessions—to make identifying, securing, and maintaining housing as simple as possible.  

Fact #1: Housing in the United States is limited and expensive.

This fact can come as a surprise to newcomers, who often arrive under the impression that housing in the United States is abundant, accessible, and affordable. 

The truth is, the United States is in the midst of a housing crisis. Housing stock is limited and generally expensive. For affordable units in urban areas, the rental market is even more competitive. Depending on location, it can take months to secure housing. Furthermore, the necessity of affordability means that most of the time, not all of a newcomer’s “wants” will be met. This can be difficult to accept for new arrivals who have specific ideas about how they want their life in the U.S. to look. It’s important to remind these newcomers that the first home they rent in the U.S. does not have to be their forever home. It’s a launchpad to help them resettle quickly, safely, and affordably.  

Tips for communicating this fact:  

  1. Understand your local housing market: There is a great deal of variability in the U.S. housing market, so before broaching this topic with newcomers, be sure you understand the reality of housing in your locality. Zillow’s Rental Market Trends tool can help you understand the state of housing in your zip code. Having a firm grasp on this will help you communicate more clearly and effectively with clients.  
  2. Anticipate that the conversation may be challenging: Housing can be an emotional topic, especially after hardship. If clients have skewed expectations, they may be frustrated when they learn that some of their wants will not be met. In these cases, it’s important to establish trust and remind them again that while they might not get all that they want, this does not have to be their forever home. They can plan and budget for relocating later on. But the reality for them and everyone in the U.S. is that it takes time. 

Fact #2: The media and word-of-mouth communication often misrepresents housing in the United States.

Resettlement practitioners should know that many newcomers arrive with skewed perceptions of homes in the U.S. Whether because of Hollywood films, advertisements on social media, or friends or family who have had different experiences during their resettlement in the U.S., anecdotes and images of lavish homes can lead newcomers to believe that they are being resettled unfairly.  

In truth, most people in the U.S. live in simple homes. For that reason, regardless of whether a newcomer family has mentioned such misconceptions, it’s important to discuss this fact with all newcomers to try and offset any disappointment and frustration during the housing search.

Tips for communicating this fact:  

  1. Begin by asking the newcomer what they know about housing in the U.S.: Starting a conversation with questions not only promotes participation but also puts newcomers and case managers on the same page about potential misperceptions.  
  2. With their answers to the above question in mind, explain housing misrepresentation: During cultural orientation, explain that while images or stories about American homes are not false, and nobody (especially their friends and family members) was intending to mislead them, they do not tell the whole story of American housing. Housing is dependent on location and income, and the vast majority of people in the U.S. live in modest homes. During this conversation, consider brainstorming ways that newcomers can make their new spaces more comfortable and “homey” on a budget. Discount stores and Buy Nothing Groups are often a good place to start. This is also a good time to talk to newcomers about scams: If advertisements on platforms like Facebook or Craigslist seem too good to be true, they probably are. Case managers should remind newcomers to discuss any listings or offers with them before reaching out to the lister to avoid dangerous situations.  
  3. Conduct another iteration of this conversation if newcomers will be using temporary housing: Temporary housing in the form of hotels, motels, and Airbnb’s can often be extremely comfortable, nicely furnished accommodations that can reaffirm preconceived notions about housing in the U.S. But these dwellings are designed to be comfortable and desirable for vacation getaways, not typically for affordable, long-term rental.  

Though it is likely to be an uncomfortable and disappointing conversation, highlight these three points to newcomers before and during their stay in temporary housing:  

  1. The temporary housing in which they are residing is unavailable and unaffordable for long-term rental. 
  2. Temporary accommodations are much nicer and more expensive than the typical affordable American rental unit.  
  3. It is likely that their temporary housing will be larger and more modern than their eventual rental unit.

Fact #3: Compromise is almost always necessary in the housing search.

When looking for housing, case managers and housing coordinators prioritize safety, security, and affordability. Safety, housing quality (meaning housing that meets state/local standards for cleanliness, sanitation, and safety), occupancy limits, and newcomers’ long-term ability to pay rent in the unit are the case managers’ priorities.

Though other wants, such as aesthetics or location in a specific neighborhood, are important and will be taken seriously, they are secondary to the above criteria. And as affordable housing in the United States is difficult to identify, compromise on these wants is almost always necessary. 

Tips for communicating this fact:  

  1. Ask the newcomer family about their desires and expectations: Consider sitting down with newcomers to create a list of their top three to five housing priorities. Listen carefully to newcomers’ wants—and reasons for those wants—regarding housing before the search begins. Not only will this help you tailor your search to better fit their desires (if that is possible), but it will also help you get to know the newcomer family better and establish trust.  
  2. Communicate that you will try to meet these wants. But if they seem unattainable, explain clearly that it may not be possible: During this conversation, be clear that you will do your best to honor their desires. Make no promises, but break down their list of wants and explain which may be possible and which are quite unlikely.  
  3. Explain what you will prioritize in the housing search: safety, housing quality, occupancy limits, and affordability: Particularly if there is pushback or frustration after explaining that one of their wants will likely not be met, explain that the above criteria must be your priority. Compromise is almost always necessary. And be sure to reiterate (during this conversation and throughout the housing search), that their first unit will not be their forever home. Once they are more adjusted, they can start planning and budgeting for another home that may have more of the aspects they are looking for. 
  4. Before the search begins, discuss whether or how often newcomers will be permitted to reject an available unit: Case managers and housing coordinators are limited by the newcomers’ family size, location, and budget. Though case managers are there to help newcomers identify housing, they are not real estate agents. Before the search begins, to avoid confusion, newcomers and case managers should discuss the number of unit “vetoes” permitted during the search. Some resettlement agencies have waitlists for housing, which can help cut down on the number of vetoes that are given when showing suitable housing options. It can also be useful to write up a brief memorandum of understanding (MOU) or unofficial contract to be sure everyone is on the same page as to what your organization expects.  

As you continue to navigate housing expectations with newcomer families, consider consulting the following additional resources:

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