After a decade of helping refugees find new homes in Madison, Lutheran Social Services will no longer resettle new refugees in the city.
Madison is a welcoming place with many churches and organizations eager to support incoming refugees, said Mary Flynn, who oversees LSS resettlement programs in Milwaukee and Madison.
But with increasing rental rates and a decrease in available housing stock, Flynn said, Madison just doesn’t have enough affordable housing that meets LSS and resettlement requirements.
“Without housing, our hands are tied. We don't want to put refugees in places that we ourselves would not live. We don’t want to put refugees in places we know they cannot afford,” Flynn said. “Madison has got a lot of wonderful things going for it, but unfortunately housing hasn’t kept up with the need.”
The decision doesn’t mean the end of all refugee services in the city. Jewish Social Services will still resettle refugees in Madison, and LSS will continue to provide support services for up to five years for refugees they previously resettled, helping refugees with tasks like applying for a green card or finding a new job.
“It is definitely a loss for the community,” said Dawn Berney, executive director of Jewish Social Services of Madison. “It’s always good to have somebody else to work with for these sorts of things and we were very collaborative.”
LSS of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan started refugee resettlement in Madison in 2008, and Jewish Social Services resettled refugees from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s and early 2000s, then again began resettling refugees in the city in 2016. Over the last few years, the number of refugees entering the U.S. has declined drastically.
In 2016, the Obama administration set the refugee cap at 85,000 and admitted 84,995 refugees. The Trump administration set a 45,000 cap for 2018, but admitted only 22,491, the lowest number or refugees since 1977. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the 2019 cap would be 30,000.
In 2017, JSS resettled 30 refugees in Madison, and LSS resettled 68. Both agencies were prepared, per a Department of State requirement, to resettle 100 refugees each in 2018, but JSS resettled 49 and LSS resettled just 13.
“Even with the low numbers of arrivals, we had increased difficulty finding adequate safe and affordable housing,” Flynn said. “At full capacity we would have to find two to four apartments a month, and we had difficulty finding three in a year.”
Madison’s tight rental market is not the only challenge when it comes to finding housing for incoming refugees. JSS usually finds out a family is coming just 10 to 14 days in advance, and tries to secure housing before the refugee arrives, which can mean dozens of calls to landlords.
Refugees often have no American rental history, no credit history and no job upon arrival. Larger property management companies can be hesitant to waive screening requirements for refugees because they fear discrimination complaints.
The federal government provides a one-time allocation to help pay for initial costs like security deposits and rent, but after that refugees have to come up with rent money on their own.
“We have to get people on their feet as fast as possible and help somebody get a job as a soon as possible,” Flynn said. “We just felt that we could not in good conscience place people in apartments that we knew would be an extreme burden for them as they get their new start in life.”
Flynn thinks part of the housing squeeze is due to “an influx of corporate employees choosing to live in the city,” and this doesn’t just affect refugees, she said.
“I think that refugees are always a microcosm of society,” Flynn said. “I think a lot of lower income people are struggling with the same issues that refugee resettlement is: more affordable housing is disappearing and being replaced by higher-end apartments.”
“It’s the same struggle whether you talk to us or the Tenant Resource Center or the YWCA or DAIS (Domestic Abuse Intervention Services),” Berney said. “Madison does not have enough affordable housing, period.”
The city has now funded a number of projects that, if all are completed as proposed, will result in 1,149 affordable apartment units. But it’s still tough to initially access those units without a job, rental history or Social Security number, Flynn said. Though refugees have full documented status, they have to apply for a Social Security card upon arrival, Flynn said.
JSS seems to have had more luck finding housing for clients, but they also use donations to help refugees with rent for four months.
“We are able to give them that cushion. That does make it a little bit easier for us and for the clients,” Berney said.
LSS’s Madison program is one of many resettlement programs around the country that are closing or cutting staff — but generally these closures are due to low numbers of refugees entering the country.
Refugee resettlement agencies only get paid for the individuals they resettle, Berney said, so if few refugees are coming in, they can’t keep their staff.
In July, the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee program, which in 2016 resettled almost 700 people, announced it was closing its doors after finding homes for 97 refugees in the previous 10 months.
But for LSS, the lower numbers of incoming refugees did not play into the decision to close, Flynn said.
“It strictly was housing. My agency was fully committed to the housing site,” she said. “The numbers did not factor in for us at all. More numbers would have made it more difficult.”
Flynn expressed gratitude for Madison and the many area churches who have “done a tremendous amount of work” to help incoming refugees, including St. John’s Lutheran Church, High Point Church and Midvale Community Lutheran Church. Blackhawk Church gave significant funding that helped LSS maintain their status as a refugee resettlement agency for Madison and Milwaukee. The Literacy Network holds “English for Citizenship” classes and local employers like hotels have offered refugees a stable and welcoming place to work, Flynn said.
“I really appreciate everything that Madison has offered,” Flynn said. “It continues to be a wonderful city and it’s changing in ways that are really important, but not necessarily accessible for brand new arrivals.”