Image from Kentucky Refugee Ministries
Image courtesy Kentucky Refugee Ministries

Louisville’s tight rental market is leaving few housing units available for new refugees, leading one of the city’s top aid groups in a scramble to place new refugees and in search of a more permanent fix — including working with Metro government on a proposal to build new, refugee-specific transitional housing.

Kentucky Refugee Ministries Executive Directer John Koehlinger said there could be a severe shortage in housing for the city’s incoming refugees as soon as two years from now.

“The problem is saturation,” he said. “We fill the complex, people renew their leases, and there are fewer and fewer vacant apartments for our new arrivals.”

The city’s top two nonprofits dedicated to finding housing and other services for those fleeing violence or calamity in their home countries — Kentucky Refugee Ministries and Catholic Charities of Louisville — find housing for as many as to 2,000 refugees a year, Koehlinger said. His agency is tasked with locating anywhere from 150 to 200 units annually to meet the need.

That wasn’t so hard five years ago, when the rental market was depressed. But the sector has come back strongly, with rents rising at an average of close to 9 percent over the past year. And the increasing competition for the units on the market has made it more difficult for KRM to find landlords willing to rent to refugees, for whom the rental process is atypical.

According to Koehlinger, KRM’s goal is to have housing ready when refugees arrive, meaning they aren’t in the country when the agency is trying to find a landlord willing to rent to them. New refugees also have no income, no bank accounts, no credit history, no jobs, and no Social Security numbers.

“Right there, 80 to 90 percent of property managers don’t want to deal with that scenario and don’t want to give us those apartments,” he said. “Why would they? Why would (they) give occupancy to an apartment to someone not even in the country? They know nothing about them.”

These refugees, it is important to note, are legally allowed to enter the United States. KRM is  authorized by the Department of State, which works through the agency’s parent programs, Church World Services and Episcopal Migration Ministries. KRM receives an average of $1,125 in federal funds per new refugee, a “welcome stipend” that pays rent for the first three to six months they are in the U.S. Refugees sign leases themselves, though sometimes the services of an interpreter are required.

Representatives from Catholic Charities, which also receives federal funding, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

KRM, which has assisted more than 10,000 refugees since it began in 1990, is receiving its largest populations today from Burma, Iraq, and the Congo. Koehlinger said the refugees he works with are stable tenants, timely in paying rent, commit virtually no crime, and can help build a marginal apartment complex into a strong community. But with a surplus of qualified renters, fewer and fewer property managers want to give KRM the time to make that case.

The agency’s problems are exacerbated when apartment buildings it had once used become less responsive to KRM’s mission. This has played out at a few Louisville complexes over the past several years, Koehlinger said, including Bardstown Forest Apartments, a building that had rented to KRM refugees for a number of years but will no longer take new arrivals, though management continues to rent to refugees who already live there. Another complex that will no longer rent to arriving refugees is Eleven Oaks Apartments, Koehlinger said. Both are owned by Louisville-based property management firm Sun Residential, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Eleven Oaks. Photo courtesy Sun Residential
Eleven Oaks | Photo courtesy Sun Residential

Another common landing ground for refugees, the 381-unit Rangeland Manor, sold last year for $6.6 million. The out-of-state owners, VTT Property Management, renovated and renamed it, raised rents, and said they would no longer work with KRM or its clients, Koehlinger said. VTT also did not respond to a request for comment.

Given the limited options, Koehlinger said his agency is considering building a new apartment complex dedicated to refugees. KRM met with Develop Louisville in late May to discuss potential partnerships with the city. Koehlinger stressed that these were preliminary talks, and no specific sites have been proposed. He said the hope is for a complex with 150 to 200 units, where refugees can live for up to two years. He would also like it to include a common area and be a place where KRM could provide on-site services. “I think this would be an enhancement to whatever neighborhood it’s situated in,” he said.

Eugene Sowell, spokesman for Develop Louisville, had no comment about a proposed new refugee-centered complex, as the talks are in such early stages. “There’s nothing we can comment on based on it being preliminary,” he said.

Multiple other agencies, both in the city and state, have also recently talked about the impact of rising rents on refugee populations. Last Tuesday, the Metropolitan Housing Coalition hosted a roundtable on the subject that included representatives from Catholic Charities, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, KRM, and the Lexington Fair Housing Counsel.

Dana Duncan, development director at MHC, said about 20 people attended the session. “Folks are having a hard time resettling refugees,” she said. “Rents are going up and wages aren’t.” She added that it’s particularly difficult right now in Louisville to find three- or four-bedroom single-family homes for refugees.

She added another problem is a chronic dearth of current information about Louisville’s refugee population. She said there’s little useful information, for example, on whether the city’s refugees are leaving when their resettlement period ends, and there’s also little information on the economic impact refugees bring to the city’s business community.

Duncan said the last large, in-depth study on Louisville’s refugee community — a joint effort between the city and the Urban Institute — was in 2006.

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David Serchuk
David Serchuk is a staff writer at Insider Louisville. He is a former editor at Forbes.com, and an ex-reporter at Forbes magazine. He's written for NPR, CNBC.com, New York, Pittsburgh, Louisville and other publications named for places. He enjoys writing about business, music and other things as well.