As Las Cruces Afghans struggle to pay rent, one big fund goes untapped

Housing 225 people in Las Cruces is its own challenge amid a hot market

By: - March 30, 2022 5:00 am

Abdul Rab Noori stands in the kitchen of his Las Cruces apartment March 17, 2022. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

Leaders of two agencies in Las Cruces that are resettling Afghan refugees say they have finally found apartments or houses for most, if not all, of the individuals and families under their care. 

But it was a slog getting there, the leaders said, amid a tight housing market and increasing rent prices, and the challenge now becomes ensuring 225 Afghans can afford their new digs. Several Afghans who spoke to Source New Mexico recently have said they are crammed into too-small living spaces or fear being unable to afford rent soon. 

For example, a trio of Afghan men recently left Las Cruces early from a one-bedroom apartment, due at least in part to the living situation, according to an interpreter. Also, one family of 9 is living in a $1,600, four-bedroom house with one bathroom, 14-year-old Kamran Maswhani said.

“How am I going to provide this $1,600 after these two months?” asked Sher Alin Maswhani, father of Kamran and his six siblings and a client of Lutheran Family Services.

A Source New Mexico review of addresses and county assessment records for the 100 Afghans housed by El Calvario United Methodist Church found five households with eight people and one with nine people — all in three-bed, two-bathroom homes. 

This is part three in a series about Afghans seeking refuge in New Mexico and working to build new lives.

It’s drawn from interviews with 16 newcomers, plus experts, state and federal officials, and leaders of the two resettlement agencies in Las Cruces.

Rev. George Miller, who runs El Calvario United Methodist Church, said housing is challenging because staff have to find places that are safe and clean but also cheap enough that an Afghan family will eventually be able to afford it on its own. The church tries to give each adult his or her own room, at least, unless they ask to be doubled up, he said. 

About 76,000 Afghans were rescued by aircraft from the country in collapse last summer. Since then, resettlement agencies have scrambled to scale up to find them places to live and connect them with services. 

Increasingly, agencies have tried to branch out of dense, high-cost cities due to availability and price of housing. Las Cruces, which has never resettled Afghans before, might have stood out as an appropriate place because of its relatively low cost of living and housing, but that comes with tradeoffs. 

Cities with lower costs of living tend to have worse public transportation or fewer cultural institutions. There was also no Afghan community in Las Cruces before they got there, which added another challenge, said Andrew Byrd, southern New Mexico coordinator for Lutheran Family Services. 

“We think it’s important that refugees are resettled in communities where they have community, where they have other members of language group and nationality and ethnicity and are able to connect with those people who have a lot of experience and can help provide a community-based support to understanding their new city and navigating systems,” Byrd said. “That is definitely a challenge in Las Cruces.”

‘Concerns’ about services provided to Afghan refugees at Las Cruces church prompt investigation

And while the city might have lower housing costs, he added, it is not insulated from the global forces driving housing prices up everywhere. Average rent in Las Cruces increased 15.3% between November 2020 and November 2021, to about $971 a month, according to Point2Homes.com.

Combine that with the fact that refugees have no credit history or guaranteed income, and it’s hard to find landlords willing to house a refugee. 

“A lot of these pieces that are often barriers to local residents’ are an additional challenge for finding refugees housing,” Byrd said. 

Each Afghan arrived in Las Cruces in recent months with $1,225 — which refugees call their “welcome money” — to his or her name for essentials like housing and food. After 90 days, resettlement agencies El Calvario United Methodist Church and Lutheran Family Services cease providing many services for the Afghans, who then have to largely fend for themselves.

Many Afghans are struggling to find work, they told Source New Mexico, in part because the federal government was slow to authorize work permits and also due to the number of jobs available. About 10 Afghans at El Calvario had found employment, and 23 Afghans at Lutheran Family Services have locked down jobs, according to the most recent data available. 

There’s also more than $7 million in emergency rental assistance funds that refugees would likely qualify for, said Rudy Reyes, grant administrator for the county’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Unlike most elsewhere in New Mexico, Doña Ana County is administering its own rent assistance program. 

No refuge: Afghans describe challenges in building new life in New Mexico

However, neither agency applied for the money on behalf of refugees, Reyes told Source New Mexico. 

“It’s hard enough for a US citizen to be able to get a job at this time,” Reyes said. “Because this is the time where there’s not a lot of availability of jobs.” So it’s “relevant” to the requirements of the emergency rent fund, he said. 

It’s not clear how many Afghans in Las Cruces might have unnecessarily spent their “welcome money” on rent. Other New Mexicans facing financial peril during the pandemic prioritized rent over other essentials like groceries, according to a survey commissioned by the state early in the pandemic. 

Leaders from both agencies told Source New Mexico they didn’t apply because they believed the refugees either didn’t qualify for the money, or that they didn’t qualify yet. 

Byrd said he was under the impression that the refugees were not able to receive the money because their loss of income or low income doesn’t stem from the coronavirus pandemic. Miller at El Calvario said he didn’t think the program worked until tenants were behind in rent. 

For more on the Doña Ana County Rental Assistance Program, visit this website.

In fact, money that could go to refugees would come from a fund known as “ERA 2,” a second phase of emergency rental assistance passed in the American Rescue Plan Act. It contains fewer restrictions than the first phase, emphasizing that recipients are tenants who were financially impacted and unable to pay rent “during” the pandemic — not “due to” the pandemic, according to the Congressional Research Service. 

The American Rescue Plan Act contained about $21.5 billion for this second phase of rent assistance funding. It’s still little-known, however, because distributing agencies haven’t started to dip into that money yet in many places. Most of the rest of New Mexico won’t begin spending its second-round emergency rent money until later this spring, according to a spokesperson for the state’s program.

Reyes said the county can already distribute the $7 million, and it can happen immediately if a tenant “is late or expects to be late” on rent, according to the county’s website. The money can be spent on up to a year of back rent and utilities, plus three months of future rent or utilities, as well. 

Abdul Rab Noori, an Afghan refugee, moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Las Cruces that cost $450 a month. He said he was worried about being able to find meaningful work and afford his apartment in the meantime.

“I have heard about this program, but I’m not sure how it works,” he said of the rental assistance. 

About a week ago, Noori left the apartment in Las Cruces and headed to Iowa to be with his brother, he said, in hopes of a better job and a better life. 

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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