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$20 million housing fund may help Wayne County settle Afghan refugees

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans
Wayne County Executive Warren Evans announced a $20 million housing assistance plan on Tuesday at the Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island. (Paula Gardner)

Oct. 1: How Michigan State University helped 77 Afghans escape the Taliban

MACKINAC ISLAND—Wayne County is hoping that a new $20 million housing assistance program will allow up to 350 Afghan refugees to make their new homes in communities just south and west of Detroit.

The funding specifically targets Afghans ahead of 1,300 refugees arriving in Michigan, making it unique across the state and positioning the county to gain residents.

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The funding will go to housing for refugees, and also provide help to existing Wayne County residents outside of Detroit to pay past-due rent and utility bills during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Warren Evans, the county executive.

“We think it’s significantly needed to help people in this crisis,” Evans said during a press conference at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

An estimated 50,000 refugees will come to the U.S. within the next month, after 31,000 already have arrived and are being processed. Of them, at least 1,300 will be coming to Michigan, said Kelli Dobner, chief advancement officer of Samaritas, the largest refugee settlement agency in the state.

Their arrival comes following the U.S.’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, with broad popular support for helping people and families who aided the U.S. government and military for years. That aid made it dangerous for them to remain in their homeland now that it’s ruled by the Taliban.

Samaritas will help resettle about 350 people in Michigan, Dobner said, and it’s that pool who likely will make use of the new Wayne County funding for housing.

The Wayne County effort is unique, she said, as it unifies the goal of helping to meet all of the refugees’ needs and underwrites the costs.

“That’s what we love about this program,” Dobner said. “We have communities that come out and help us, but not in this county-based approach.”

Access to resources should be markedly different under the new plan, Dobner said, due to it effectively setting up a “one-stop shop” for resources like finding employment and furnishing homes through other community partners.

With Tuesday’s announcement, resettlement agencies hope that other counties may adopt a similar approach, Dobner said, since more refugees may be headed to Michigan. Some conversations between resettlement groups and additional counties in Michigan already are taking place, she added.

While there’s a humanitarian reason to settle Afghan refugees in Michigan, there’s also an economic one: They’ll be living, working and attending schools in the communities where they settle. The state’s population grew by 2 percent from 2010-2020, but state forecasts say the labor force won’t support job expansion by 2028.

In the growing Grand Rapids area, 58 percent of the new residents come from other countries, or nearly 18,000 people.

“Every person who (comes into the area) is so important over the next 10 years just the way the demographics look and the trends look,” said Andy Johnston, vice president for government affairs at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. “That’s going to be the key to competitiveness.

“Refugees will play a big role. So are all new Americans.”

That’s one reason the chamber supports immigration reform, he added.

Resettlement agencies arrange for refugees’ housing, which includes basic furnishings, appliances and clothing. Resettlement agencies are given  a one-time sum of $2,275 per person from the U.S. State Department to help refugees in their first 90 days.

Samaritas refugees on average become self-sufficient within 180 days, Dobner said.

The $20 million plan in Wayne County still has to be allocated by the Wayne County Board of Commissioners, Evans said. However, there appears to be widespread support for it on the board, according to several commissioners attending the press conference.

It will come from Wayne County’s $32 million in housing funding provided by the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, Evans said.

The new funding, Evans said, will not include Detroit residents, since the city also is receiving ARP funding that it can use for housing.

Wayne County is the largest county in Michigan, with 1.79 million people, including the city of Detroit. While Detroit’s population declined over the last decade, the county — when excluding Detroit — grew by 4.3 percent.

The housing fund addresses just a portion of the need as the pandemic continues, Evans said, including businesses struggling to hire and people and nonprofits running low on funding to assist clients. An estimated 9,000 households are believed to need some kind of housing assistance, Evans said.

The end of the federal eviction moratorium accentuates the need to keep people in their homes, he said, saying the average person who is behind on rent in Wayne County owes about $2,300.

More funding could be added in the future, Evans said, after the program is assessed. Details on administration were not available on Tuesday.

“I’m glad to see them come,” Evans said of the Afghans. “... They’re a boon to our economy.

“They come, they work hard and they become a part of our community.”

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