Editorial: Housing hurdle for refugee resettlement

  • Participants at a house party hosted by the Northampton Human Rights Commission on Sunday had the opportunity to sign up for various ways to volunteer and lend support for refugee resettlement, including employment, housing assistance and forming “Circles of Care.” GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Monday, November 07, 2016

Northampton has the will to welcome refugees, but will it have a way? Despite months of planning, it remains largely uncertain where as many as 51 incoming refugees will live when they arrive next year.

That quest is complicated by relatively high housing costs in Northampton. For this effort to succeed, it needs more than goodwill. It will require that people who own apartments or homes that might be suitable permanent housing for refugees set their economic interests aside and, by accepting less than this housing would normally fetch in rents, pursue a global good.

While that’s a high bar, Northampton has a long history of helping people in crisis, going back as far as Florence abolitionists and families who allowed their homes to be stops on the Underground Railroad. The City Council reaffirmed that spirit when it voted 10 months ago to welcome refugees, stepping forward to help achieve President Obama’s goal of accepting 110,000 refugees in 2017, compared to 85,000 this year and 70,000 in 2015.

Recent community meetings made clear support exists for the city’s plan to work with the Catholic Charities Agency of Springfield to welcome refugees from troubled areas of the world. Some of these refugees have been in flight for years, fleeing disruption, violence and political persecution in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Iraq and possibly Afghanistan.

While refugees from the civil war in Syria are most in the news today, they share their plight with hundreds of thousands who have endured hardship few Americans could imagine.

Those who can picture that trauma are likely among the more than 500 people who have signed up to help with refugee resettlement.

But even though they stand ready to assist Catholic Charities relocate 10 families, arriving refugees need permanent housing, not temporary quarters.

We were surprised to hear an official with Catholic Charities, the official reception and placement agency, tell a group in Northampton recently that the issue of housing was being broached for the first time publicly. That session produced leads, but the agency only has months to complete this search.

While people move in and out of rental housing every day in the city, the resettlement program needs to find landlords willing to accept lower than market rates and perhaps to allow properties to remain vacant for a time, as the families are processed through the State Department refugee system. Peg Keller, housing and community development planner for Northampton, told a gathering it will take “outside the box” thinking to find all the housing needed.

An example of that, she said, might be a church community with an unused parsonage or a college with available faculty housing. Institutions like churches and colleges could be key players in the resettlement, allowing them to deploy their public service missions in a new arena.

Catholic Charities is looking for two studio apartments, two or three one-bedroom apartments, five two-bedroom apartments, five three-bedroom apartments and two four-bedroom apartments.

At 195 Main St. In Leeds, the rectory of the former St. Catherine of Alexandria Church, closed years ago by the Springfield diocese, remains vacant and for sale. Rather than let it sit unused, the diocese could opt to aid Catholic Charities by making it available, at least for a limited time, as a home for a refugee family.

Catholic Charities says it can sweeten the deal for landlords by supplementing the reduced rents that families will pay. Payments would be $400 for a studio, $625 for a two-bedroom and $925 for a three-bedroom apartment.

Catholic Charities is vowing to be a supportive partner to landlords. And as many as 20 “circles of care,” each made up of six to eight local families, will be ready to help as well.

We hope anyone who can help the resettlement effort get over this housing hurdle comes forward. For information on the project, visit welcomehomenorthampton.org.

That website’s name says a lot. After years of dislocation for refugees, Northampton offers a precious thing: home. And something equally elusive: a genuine welcome.