Why You Should Rent to Refugees

I recently held a design thinking session around challenges facing refugees living in Philadelphia. The question we discussed was “How might we do a better job of finding housing for refugees in Philadelphia?” I’ll tell you the ideas we came up with in a second, but first a couple of facts about refugees that I had no idea about before we began.

Refugees have no say in whether or not they are refugees.

And I don’t mean that in a “no one decides whether or not their country becomes a war zone” kind of way. I literally mean that the term “refugee” has very specific meanings in different countries, and someone who is not you gets to decide if you “count” as a refugee once you apply for that status.

Refugees have no say in where they go.

In the rare case that you apply for third country resettlement and actually get it (think lottery odds), no one shows you a map of the world and asks, “Where would you like to live?” Instead, someone else decides for you.

This profound loss of agency is something that struck me as I began a design exercise with some folks from the Philadelphia design community, refugee community, and refugee support community.

The solution we narrowed in on focuses on finding the right kind of rental property owner and—pay attention now—that may be you.

A Few Good Landlords

Willingness to rent to newly arriving refugees.

This is kind of a big one. In fact, it’s arguably the biggest criteria there is, because it bundles a few things that some landlords might consider disincentives to renting. For example, the renter is not yet physically in the country. This means no opportunity for background checks or credit checks and, without a job, there’s no verifiable income stream, all of which are table stakes for renting.

Here’s the thing about background checks.

A refugee is more vetted than just about any other human being in this country. How many of the people you currently rent to have been vetted by the FBI, the CIA, Homeland Security, Interpol, and more? (If you’re keeping score, the process involves 8 U.S. Federal Government agencies, 6 different security databases, 5 separate background checks, 4 biometric security checks, 3 separate in-person interviews, and 2 inter-agency security checks.)


There’s more. Refugees, at least the ones coming through HIAS PA, are getting 3–6 months of case management services, which means home visits to ensure they know how to use the apartment, picture guides to help non-English speakers communicate with their landlords, financial and budget literacy sessions (again, something many non-refugees could probably use), assistance finding and keeping a job that meets their expenses, English language lessons, and more to make sure they are self-sustaining as soon as possible.

More fundamentally, a willingness to rent to refugees is a willingness to help someone who has been dealt an unbelievably bad hand.

Think about it. What would it take for you to leave the U.S.A? How bad would it have to get? Flood, famine, war? We have difficulty imagining something like that happening at a scale that would make us—and 5,000,000 of our closest friends—leave.

But I want you to imagine it anyway because that is what refugees are dealing with. Something has happened, through no fault of your own, that has made it a choice between leaving or dying. Now you sit in a camp in a country where you have no power over your fate and, if you’re very lucky, and pass through about a hundred gauntlets, you go to a new country where you have very little power over your fate.

And when you get there, you are viewed with suspicion and, in some cases, hate.

Do you really want to be the person who won’t rent to you?

Willingness to be flexible around $

Let’s be honest. This is not going to be the same situation as a normal renter. This is where you put your money where your mouth is. Can you skip last month’s rent? Can you waive the security deposit? Can we make a deal?

Willingness to be flexible around the lease

A six-month lease is better than a 12 month lease but month-to-month is where it’s at for this group of people.

Properties to spare

The more properties you own, the less of a hit it is to deal with the above constraints. Moreover, the more likely you’ll have apartments available on short notice. Sometimes there’s very little time before you know that an apartment is needed.

Do you have a rental license for the property?

That’s pretty much a yes/no question.

What’s your lead situation?

This should be a forgone conclusion, but do you have a lead-free certificate? Are you willing to get one? Many of these families have children.

The Bottom Line



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David Dylan Thomas

Big fan of treating people like people. Author, Design for Cognitive Bias. Founder, CEO, David Dylan Thomas, LLC. Speaker, Lots of Places.