Thomas Kania is the grandson of Polish immigrants, people he says came to the United States to try their luck. Now Kania, a real estate investor, says it was their experience that motivated him to help others find an opportunity for themselves – the newly arrived Afghan refugees.
âIt’s basically the American spirit,â Kania said from her rental unit in the North Middletown neighborhood. It will soon house a family of six from Afghanistan. âIt was the American spirit that my grandparents felt. It is the American spirit that the following generations have taken advantage of in my family. So I’m very happy to have someone here who could benefit from the American experience, and so we welcome them as we would any other tenant.
Kania is just one of hundreds of homeowners getting involved as Connecticut expects to welcome hundreds of refugees over the next two months. As military bases temporarily housing refugees reach their maximum capacity, states are urged to help, according to resettlement agencies. Connecticut alone is expecting more than 500 refugees – a jump from the 300 initials estimated in September. And the number could see another increase. But as Connecticut braces for the influx, affordable housing has become a challenge.
âWe know that when we relocate people, they’ve been through a lot,â said Susan Schnitzer, President and CEO of the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants, one of two federally approved relocation agencies in Connecticut. âMany of them have just picked up 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 ask owners – large owners, individual owners – to contact our agencies and open your doors to refugees. “
In a recent press conference, Schnitzer said more than 200 people have been able to relocate so far, but as the state braces for more, there are concerns about the housing shortage.
Kania remembers it like it was yesterday when he got the call about his new tenants. He showed his vacant accommodation to about twenty candidates. He said he had about 60 interested customers in total.
âI received a phone call from a broker who asked me not to hang up and explained the situation to me,â he said. “And I said,” Sure, come and see the apartment, see if that will work for you. “”
The appeal was on behalf of the New Haven-based resettlement agency Integrated services for refugees and immigrants, 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.
The three bedroom apartment was built in the 1900s, but what’s inside is newer. Thanks to IRIS, the master bedroom has a new bed, thick winter blanket, towels, dresser and more. Meanwhile, the other two bedrooms – ideally for the kids – have new twin beds, plush toys and blankets.
The apartment is furnished by IRIS thanks to donations. The organization aims to provide the family with a warm and safe apartment from day one. The kitchen is also equipped with the essentials.
âThe staple food you would need for a family – things that would be used for an international diet, things like rice, sugar, salt, staple seasonings, cooking oil,â Kania said. .
This is his first time working with a relocation agency, but he said he had no worries.
âI don’t understand the reluctance,â he said. âWe’ve all come from somewhere at some point. And they have resettlement agencies working with them. If they left these people here to fend for themselves, they would pitch tents in public parks. But I think that’s not the intention to bring these people here … It’s really about showing them the real American experience, and the American experience begins with a home.
About 15 miles from Middletown, in Hartford’s Barry Square neighborhood, another owner is also welcoming new Americans. Murat Feratovic owns more than 30 homes in Greater Hartford and, over the past two years, he said he has helped around 10 refugees to resettle through IRIS. He is drawn to the cause because he was in their shoes.
“I’m coming [here the] like them, âFeratovic said. “I [came] from Bosnia. You come here with a bag with nothing in it and you start a life here. You leave everything behind. It’s so difficult, but you have to get used to it.
Feratovic left Bosnia during the country’s civil war in the 1990s. Similar to refugees from Afghanistan, Feratovic was forced to leave his home country. He came here with no credit history or stable income so he knows how important it is for someone to give you a chance. He is able to connect with his tenants on a deeper level and tries to be a resource as much as possible, he said.
“[I] try to point them the right way because it is a country with a lot of opportunities, but if you use [it] the wrong way, it will hurt you. [As] as much as I can, I help them, âhe said. âHere in Connecticut, you need a car to be successful. You get a better job, a better opportunity, so I let them know [where] to obtain a driver’s license and automobile insurance.
Chris George is the executive director of IRIS. And although the organization has housing specialists, it often finds itself encountering landlords who are on the fence. He said there was a lot of hesitation in the homeowner’s community and that alongside a 15% rent increase this year, could lead to a potential barrier to resettlement. IRIS alone will need at least 100 apartments in cities and suburbs in Connecticut, and it aims to minimize risk to homeowners as much as possible.
âThere might be a little different things,â said George. âFor example, they don’t have a credit history. But we co-sign the lease. They may not speak English very well. But IRIS is still available to translate. They don’t have a job when they arrive. But they will find jobs very quickly. And IRIS makes sure they pay the rent on time. And in full.
George says the ideal living space for a refugee family is close to public transportation. Apartment rates should range from $ 1,100 per month for a two-bedroom apartment to $ 1,500 for a four-bedroom apartment, but they can vary depending on location. The idea is that the family should be able to pay the rent if they are to work for minimum wage.
The state has pledged to help the refugees with a security deposit and two months’ rent – about $ 4,500 per family of five – and they will also be able to enroll in the emergency rent assistance program. the state, Unite CT, which offers up to $ 15,000 in rent assistance. Resettlement agencies are also committed to helping families financially in their first year until they become independent.
Steven Kaplan understands part of the hesitation. He’s a new owner in New Haven and he heard about IRIS on the radio. He said at the start that he had a lot of questions.
“Do they know electricity? ” He asked. “Do they know how to operate a thermostat and an oven?” So just like everyday things that we take for granted, I was just worried about their familiarity with it. “
But by working with IRIS, he was able to address all of his concerns. He is now renting to four Afghan men and said it opened his eyes to different cultures.
âI took them to Home Depot which was fun and, you know, I put the radio on for them, I played them what our music sounded like,â Kaplan said. âAnd they played me some of their music while we were in the car. And so it’s getting to know people that I would never meet otherwise. “
Kaplan says he’s excited to grow their tenant-owner relationship and hopes to sit down to share a meal soon.
âTo help people who have lost everything, and just to give them the comfort of knowing that there is a safe home for them to live in, hot food, a good bed,â Kaplan said. “It’s the least we can do as America.”