Charity looks to enlist Northampton landlords in meeting refugee housing needs

  • Patricia Jenkins, left, Lauren Simonds, Judith Fine and Elizabeth Bertone-Johnson sign up for various ways to welcome and support refugees to Northampton.

  • Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of the Catholic Charities Agency of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, introduces Adim Malek of East Longmeadow, a refugee from South Sudan who was settled in the Springfield area in 2005 and went on to earn a business and marketing degree from Elms College. They were among several speakers at a house party to support refugee settlement hosted by the Northampton Human Rights Commission at the home of HRC member Christine Young on Sunday.

  • Participants at a Northampton Humans Right Commission-hosted house party 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", of six to eight people or households, to welcome refugees and support their on-going integration into the community.

Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 25, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — As the first of 51 refugees from Burundi, the Congo, Syria and Iraq begin arriving in Northampton early in the new year, the Catholic Charities Agency of Springfield and hundreds of volunteers are stepping forward to ensure a welcoming atmosphere and smooth transition when they begin new lives in the city.

But so far no permanent housing for these individuals and families has been identified, said Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of Catholic Charities Agency, prompting Monday evening’s first meeting of the city’s refugee resettlement initiative targeting property managers, owners and landlords.

“I’m optimistic because tonight was the first night we’ve talked housing,” Buckley-Brawner said. “We make a great partner — that’s what the landlords and property owners need to know.”

A City Hall room was filled with more than 30 people who came out to learn more about the need for permanent housing, which will be provided to the refugees at free or reduced rent.

Northampton residents Tala Elia and Jeffrey Dan said they hoped to find out if they could help Catholic Charities and the city with this objective.

“We’re definitely open to working with them, and we’re considering both temporary and permanent housing,” Elia said.

Elia said the resettlement initiative has been remarkable.

“I think they’ve put an extraordinary amount of thought and energy into it, and so far seem to be approaching it in a comprehensive way,” Elia said.

While many have offered temporary accommodations, such as rooms in their homes, the mandate from the State Department is that permanent housing be found as soon as possible, Buckley-Brawner said.

“Shared living is not a model that the State Department actually approves of,” Buckley-Brawner said.

Peg Keller, housing and community development planner for Northampton, said the challenge is that the typical affordable housing provided by the Northampton Housing Authority, along with projects overseen by agencies such as HAPHousing and Valley Community Development Corp., isn’t an option because there are already waiting lists for those dwellings.

“It’s really thinking out of the box,” Keller said. “Whatever we normally work on will not be available to them.”

This might include an unoccupied Smith College faculty home or a church parsonage whose minister has other housing, Keller said.

Buckley-Brawner said Catholic Charities is seeking two studio apartments, two or three one-bedroom apartments, five two-bedroom apartments, five three-bedroom apartments and two four-bedroom apartments.

The agency will provide assistance to landlords to supplement the household’s rent, which can’t exceed 60 percent of a family’s income. Still, the monthly rent payments would be just $400 for a studio, $625 for a two-bedroom and $925 for a three-bedroom, well below the typical rents in the Northampton area.

Besides the financial sacrifice landlords would be asked to make, Buckley-Brawner said Catholic Charities will work out issues with landlords on how to set aside housing stock, understanding, for instance, that an apartment may need to be kept vacant until refugees arrive.

Buckley-Brawner said one-on-one conversations will take place with any willing participants.

“We just need to sit down with property managers themselves to work out these details,” Buckley-Brawner said. “It’s going to take following up with them.”

Laura Robertson, housing coordinator for Catholic Charities, said Monday’s session provided a few good leads.

“We will be doing more outreach to landlords for potential permanent housing,” Robertson said.

So far, more than 500 volunteers have signed up to help in some way, demonstrating the goodwill in the community. “The outpouring has been extraordinary,” Buckley-Brawner said.

Catholic Charities has a real stake in each family being successful, she said. But she acknowledged there will be challenges along the way, noting that the State Department anticipates that the primary earner in the family will have a full-time job within 90 to 120 days.

“That’s a pretty fairy-tale type scenario,” Buckley-Brawner said.

Each refugee gets $1,250 and within the first seven days will be signed up for benefits, such as health care and food stamps. The families will also get a subsidy from Catholic Charities for their rent.

Northampton’s resettlement is part of an effort started last fall when President Obama increased the number of refugees to be resettled in the United States from 70,000 in 2015 to 85,000 in 2016 and 110,000 in 2017.

For more information, visit http://welcomehomenorthampton.org/

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.