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Vermont wants to resettle more refugees, but may not have enough housing

A group of 5 elementary school kids sit in front of their teacher and clap. They sit in two lines. We only see the back of the teacher.  Sitting center is a girl in a Hijab.
Tracy Dolan
Refugee families arriving in Vermont tend to be larger and include kids, which is one consideration when resettlement agencies are looking for housing in Vermont's tight market.

Last year, more than 500 refugees and others with similar status resettled in Vermont, according to the state refugee office.

They came from all over the globe - mostly fleeing persecution in their home countries. Organizations in Vermont plan to increase the number of refugees they take in this year, to roughly 600. But the state’s housing crisis could get in the way.

The cost of housing in Vermont is high and rapidly increasing – with median rent prices jumping 28 percent since 2015. And that’s if you can find vacant housing in the first place.

Vermont Public's Mary Engisch spoke with Vermont state refugee office Director Tracy Dolan to learn more about the outlook for this year's resettlement efforts. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Mary Engisch: First off, Vermont's planning to take in its largest number of refugees in a decade this year. What's leading to that jump?

Tracy Dolan: Well, we were actually taking in between 350 and 400 for several years between 2008 and 2016. Those numbers dropped with the change in the federal administration. The goal of the Trump administration was to significantly decrease the refugee program, and they were successful in doing that. Also, the pandemic slowed numbers down. As that happened, the infrastructure for refugee admissions overseas also decreased.

What we saw with the new [Biden] administration is a desire to increase the number of refugees coming into the United States, and that increased the overall number that has come in. Therefore every state, and the refugee agencies associated with each state, looked to see where they can increase their numbers in order to try to work with the federal government target. That's where that's coming from — we're able to bring more refugees into the U.S. and other people with other statuses that are similar to refugee status. Here in Vermont, we have a need to increase our workforce to build a population in this way. It's all part of the U.S. that refugee admissions program.

Mary Engisch: I know it's difficult to generalize too much, but can you give us, like, a background on who these folks are? What parts of the world are they coming from?

Tracy Dolan: Refugees in general are people who are escaping persecution. These are folks who have to leave — not folks who are choosing to leave in most cases. More recently, in the last couple of years, we saw a really high number from Afghanistan. Their status was slightly different. It was called humanitarian parolee, but similar to refugees in that they were taken in and brought through the full security process and resettlement process.

Profile shot of a smiling woman wearing a black V-neck shirt. She is in front of a plain grey background. Has a long pixie-cut.
Tracy Dolan is Vermont's state refugee director.

Now in the past year or so, we're also seeing a lot of folks from the Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria and also continuing to receive in Afghans as well. This calendar year, we're probably looking at a little over 600. This is if you include Cuban, Haitian entrants, who also come with work permits, or the Ukrainian humanitarian parolees who also come in generally able to work.

Mary Engisch: Can you walk me through the process of what it like a traditional process of resettlement might look like?

Tracy Dolan: Normally, when we're not quite in housing crisis, the following things would happen: First of all, the resettlement agency would quickly look for permanent long-term housing to be able to move those folks into. They would pick people up at the airport when they arrived. People arrive with their legal status, they usually arrive with a work permit or get a work permit soon thereafter. They are usually brought directly to their longer-term housing.

Folks arrive with a small amount of money, they arrive with about $1,300 each. That helps them in those first few weeks. They also get signed up for state or federal benefits that other low-income Vermonters would be eligible for. Then the resettlement agency helps them connect with English classes that they need. It helps connect them with jobs, with child care or enrolling in school, depending on how old the kids are — if there are kids there. Generally, help connect them to services and community. Ideally, if there are other people of the same nationality or who speak the same language nearby, there are connections made there as well. Religious connections if somebody comes in and they need to get connected to a church or a mosque, they're also connected in that way.

More from Vermont Edition: Refugees and resettlement organizations in Vermont ask for housing help

Mary Engisch: Thanks for walking us through that. And we've mentioned a couple of times the housing crisis — the housing crisis is not new in Vermont, unfortunately. How is your office dealing with the current state of housing in Vermont, and is this year even tougher to find folks who are resettling in Vermont places to live?

Tracy Dolan: This year is even tougher.

We have two refugee resettlement agencies in Vermont. We have USCRI [U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants], and they're based in Colchester — they have offices in Colchester and Rutland. Then we have ECDC [Ethiopian Community Development Council], and they're based in Brattleboro — they have offices in Brattleboro and Bennington.

Traditionally, let's say before the pandemic, the resettlement agencies would work with normally a small number of landlords that they have good relationships with. They would work really hard — because it's always been hard to get housing in Vermont. It's that's been going on for years, but we work hard and eventually find an apartment or a house to rent and assist people in that way.

However, now we've got a much tighter housing market. So, even when working all those connections and angles — it's still not always producing housing when folks first arrive. It's taking a lot longer. What's happening now is they're having to stay in temporary locations: hotel, motel, sometimes an Airbnb briefly while the resettlement agency looks for housing. In the Brattleboro-Bennington area, sometimes they're staying at a college campus, the School for International Training [SIT] for a couple of months.

Probably about a third of the housing they find is not necessarily housing that is posted in a public way or in the paper, but instead are through connections. It might be a family that maybe didn't have their place on the market, but learned through someone that refugee families arriving and decided, "OK, maybe we'll open up the mother-in-law apartment," or: "We've got another small place, and we'd like to put that on the market." Then for the rest of it, it's really just working as hard as they can, primarily with private landlords, to see what they can find. It's just like every other Vermonter who are having to work really hard on [finding housing], because it's expensive, and the vacancy rates are low.

"What's happening now is they're having to stay in temporary locations: hotel, motel, sometimes an Airbnb briefly while the resettlement agency looks for housing. In the Brattleboro-Bennington area, sometimes they're staying at a college campus, the School for International Training [SIT] for a couple of months."
Tracy Dolan, director of Vermont's state refugee office

Mary Engisch: What's unique about housing needs for refugees resettling in the state?

Tracy Dolan: Well, probably a couple unique things. One, they tend to be larger families. They usually need a three bedroom, and need a little more room because they have more kids. They tend not to have transportation. So, being on a bus line or being in a place where they can get to work, the folks coming in, obviously, they're coming in with almost nothing, so they start work right away, but the jobs aren't high-paying. Like all other low-income Vermonters, they're looking for affordable housing.

Mary Engisch: We've heard business owners too in the state talk about incoming transplants potentially helping with this state's worker shortage. That's only one factor at play. What does the state gain from its refugee settlement program?

Tracy Dolan: I would say one of the things the state gains, which you just mentioned, was adding to the workforce — but also just adding to the fabric of our community. A lot of folks arrive, and while they don't necessarily start businesses right away, you do see a high level of entrepreneurship.

You also just to add to the diversity, and the mutual education that goes on when people arrive from from another place. There are elementary, middle and high schools that have global education programs in their schools that may not have had that had they not had kids arriving from other places.

Then of course, just they bring with them culture: different foods, different music, different ways of thinking about the world. All of that really enriches all of us. They certainly of course gain tremendously by being able to come to a place that is peaceful. A lot of them are coming from very, very difficult situations. They've been forced out often by war, or by some kind of persecution because of who they are. The obvious example of that more recently was Afghanistan and Ukraine. To be able to come and be in a peaceful place, and then have folks who can help them resettle is an important piece. I would say it's really mutually beneficial.

Mary Engisch: The state wants to have refugees be resettled this year in bigger towns and cities in the state like Colchester, Montpelier, Rutland, Brattleboro and Bennington. Is that still a realistic goal, though, given that these towns and cities centers are facing some of the state's most dire housing shortages? Is there any adjusting going on to the numbers that Vermont does hope to resettle on?

Tracy Dolan: Well, the resettlement agencies ultimately work the numbers with their headquarters. They have already made some adjustments. For example, during the first federal fiscal quarter, so October to December, we got a disproportionate number of people arriving compared to what our overall goal was, and so for the last quarter of the federal fiscal year, in the last several months, there were relatively high numbers arriving. In those cases, the local offices went back to their headquarters and said, "Hey, we need to slow down arrivals a little bit. They're coming too quickly and we just can't find housing because the market so tight." They have raised that discussion with their national partners that if we can't find housing, we may need to reduce those numbers.

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