Why Afghan Refugees Aren’t Actually Welcome in California

All the lawn signs in the world won’t change the fact that housing costs are impossibly high for most refugees.

Afghan residents in Fremont, California
Stefano G. Pavesi / Contrasto / Redux

About the authors: Darrell Owens is a data analyst at California YIMBY and a housing and transportation activist in the Bay Area. Muhammad T. Alameldin is a housing-justice and democratic-inclusion activist from the Central Valley who currently resides in the Bay Area.

The city of Fremont, California, home of the Tesla manufacturing plant, is located 50 minutes southeast of San Francisco. In addition to being a popular bedroom community for well-to-do tech employees, Fremont is home to what is likely the largest community of Afghan immigrants in the United States. Official counts have found as many as 5,000 Afghans in the area known as “Little Kabul,” but the unofficial—and probably more accurate—number is closer to 30,000.

So you’d think that American diplomats and relocation-assistance programs would identify Fremont as an ideal destination for the incoming wave of Afghan refugees.

Instead, the State Department has warned Afghans away from not just Fremont but all coastal California cities. Last week, the State Department released a list of cities that it deems suitable for Afghans who qualify for Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, such as interpreters or others who have assisted the U.S. government. In a telling indictment of California’s housing policies, not one of the 19 cities considered affordable for refugees were in the nation’s most populous state. A very limited exception was granted to the inland capital, Sacramento, but it came with a warning about a “critical shortage in housing availability.” Like in so many California neighborhoods, the average rent for a two-bedroom home in the Afghan-heavy Sacramento community of North Highlands has doubled in just the past five years.

For decades now, California’s housing situation has forced residents to abandon the state for cities that build a lot more affordable housing, such as Dallas, Phoenix, and Houston. Now this domestic phenomenon has officially gone international: Although a few refugees are being resettled in California—and with the affordability crisis, even that tiny number is struggling—the Golden State is no longer the haven for refugees that it once was.

“California has been dealing with a serious housing-affordability issue for years, and the problem is only worsening,” says Amer Rashid of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “This means reexamining and expanding funding for programs like Refugee Cash Assistance so that the resources refugees receive upon arrival correlate more closely to California’s cost of living. We love to say we welcome refugees in California, but we need to do more to act on it by ensuring it is feasible for refugees to join our communities.”

The situation may sound ho-hum—“California is expensive. What’s new?”—but the implications go far beyond the plight of refugees in search of a better future. California is not affordable to most Californians; the pace of housing growth is so anemic that children born in California today are almost certain to be forced to leave the state or vacate the coast for an affordable home. In 2020, the state’s population shrunk for the first time ever, and research shows that most of the departed are low- and middle-class Californians.

This is no accident. The state’s housing policies were designed with this outcome in mind.

California’s deliberate housing shortage took 50 years to engineer, and may take nearly as long to unwind. Since the 1970s, the state has imposed de facto population limits and reduced housing capacity in its coastal communities, where housing demand and job growth is the highest, and it has done so with the support of a small but vocal coalition of liberals and small-c conservative property owners.

The state of California now ranks 49th in housing units per person. According to the 2020 census, California had the lowest inventory of vacant housing in the country. Exclusionary zoning laws, Reagan-era caps on property taxes, and the dismantling of public housing have done what they were intended to do: keep nonwhite people and non-nuclear-family households out of “our” communities. This all happened during a period when the Latino and Asian populations—both immigrant and native-born—were the primary source of population growth in the state.

The “Reagan Revolution” won decisively here even among liberals who bought into the antiquated, Malthusian idea of capping the population. The result: California, which has the highest share of foreign-born immigrants in the U.S., at 27 percent, is regressing from a golden land of opportunity for immigrants to a quasi-feudal society, where housing stability is a luxury available only to property heirs and the wealthy. The state’s median home price is now $800,000. Those Refugees Welcome signs you see on the lawns of homes in California's famously “progressive” cities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco? Only the wealthiest people can afford to live in many, if not most, of those neighborhoods, thanks to the lack of affordable and available rental housing.

The refugee signs sometimes sit next to Black Lives Matter signs, in neighborhoods with no Black people. That’s also by design.

California’s progressive cities have shown almost total disinterest in confronting the problem, even as the state legislature has begun to lead on housing reform. More than 75 percent of the urban land in California bans multifamily housing, the key to reducing household overcrowding, particularly among large, multigenerational, and extended-family households. Local leaders’ resistance to reform—especially in the suburbs—has long prevented the state legislature from allowing even the most modest changes. However, the legislature finally passed a measure in late August that will allow two-family housing in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes; one Los Angeles legislator cited the bill as a way to help multigenerational immigrant households and admonished the L.A. city council for its opposition. The bill now awaits Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature.

In addition to the growing push for more housing from the state capitol, the Biden administration is taking an aggressive stance on getting more homes built in places that need them. But these long-term initiatives to bring greater housing affordability won’t affect refugee resettlement in the immediate future.

Newly resettled refugees are mostly families. In many cases, only the men are able to work, which means that it’s not uncommon for these families to crowd into one-bedroom apartments. That’s why the State Department didn’t recommend California cities, even those with Afghan populations: The state has the five most overcrowded cities in America, and two- and three-bedroom housing is in short supply. In the Bay Area, rents for houses of this size range from from $3,000 to $5,000 a month. But the federal Refugee Cash Assistance program pays just $325 per adult and $200 per child each month for eight months.

In the rare cases where refugees do make it to high-cost metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and the Bay Area, they typically don’t stay for long. Helene Eisenberg, a descendant of Jewish refugees, is a sponsor of refugee resettlement for the International Rescue Committee. She recalls helping an Afghan family settle in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood in 2017. “The husband and wife were living in a one-bedroom apartment with four children,” Eisenberg says. “The husband seemed so tired from interrupted sleep from the four being in one bedroom.” When the landlord raised the rent, the family relocated to Tracy, a far-flung suburb that’s growing fast to accommodate the Bay Area’s working class. In Tracy, at least, they could afford a two-bedroom home.

At some point, Californians have to ask ourselves: How—beyond the lawn signs—do we support refugees? By what metrics? Conservative Texas has three cities on the State Department’s list of places whose policies and housing affordability are refugee-friendly. Houston and Dallas, whose diversity in Black, Asian, and Latino residents continues to grow, are much more hospitable to refugees than the so-called liberal bastions of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Houston’s and Dallas’s housing production per capita is more than double that of both California cities. That’s not a coincidence either.

What many ostensibly progressive California cities fail to understand is that housing affordability is refugee policy. If you want an inclusive community where people seeking refuge can actually live, you need to add a lot more housing. There’s no way around it.