WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — The Wichita housing crisis is impacting hundreds of refugees who come to the community for a new life.
Over the last 12 months, The International Rescue Committee (IRC) settled 475 refugees in the Wichita area. The IRC is accepting people from the Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Somalia, Ukraine, Syria, and Central America.
It can take time to get families into permanent housing, especially large families. In the last year, IRC spent more than $1 million to keep families in hotels while they wait for their new home.
In March 2023, single mom Zabibu Isombelo traveled from the Republic of Congo to Wichita with her seven children, ready for a new life.
“I was in the hotel for three weeks,” said Isombelo.
Her experience is common. The IRC said on average, families spend 25 days in a hotel waiting for housing.
“We have had to utilize hotels when families arrive because a lot of the landlords will not let us sign the lease until they arrive,” said Wichita IRC executive director Yeni Silva-Renteria.
The IRC said the availability and lack of affordable units can make it a challenge to find a place to stay, especially for families with more than seven. Due to the community’s housing crisis, Wichita’s IRC asked for a pause on accepting larger families about three months ago. It’s not a complete stop, but it led to the IRC using hotels more than ever.
“It was the fact that we knew that a family has been waiting for eight years and then were finally given the notice that they could travel to Wichita. And for me to say no, that could mean that they could wait another five years or more, or they couldn’t even get out of their country,” said Silva-Renteria.
Isombelo began the process of leaving the Republic of Congo in 2017. Now, in her permanent home, she works a full-time job at a hotel and is trying to learn more about her community and understand the culture.
“It is a little bit hard for me to be here by myself without a husband or somebody to help me,” said Isombelo.
She hopes to find a better-paying job, saying it’s difficult to support her family on her wages.
Silva-Renteria said the IRC is trying to be creative in finding housing but says more affordable units are needed, as are protections to keep prices reasonable. The IRC works with multiple landlords who are willing to rent to refugees but is hoping to find more.
The city of Wichita works with the IRC to provide housing vouchers to refugees. The Housing Choice Voucher Program is available to low-income families. If they qualify, participants pay about 30% of their income to the landlord, with the rest of the rent covered by the voucher.
Since January of 2021, when the program began accepting refugees, ten vouchers have been used.
“They’re trying to find resources in the community first and would refer them over when there’s a great need for a particular family,” said Sally Stang, director of Wichita’s Housing and Community Services. “We’re not their first step.”
The city’s voucher program is available for people who meet specific requirements. All of the programs combined have a total of 3,360 available vouchers, and all are being used. Stang says there are more than 5,000 people on the waiting list.
“It is a blessing that we have the maximum number of families receiving assistance, but it also means even though I may get a referral from IRC, they’re sitting on a waiting list because we don’t have a voucher to give,” said Stang.
The voucher size is based on the size of the family. It requires that there are no more than two people per sleeping area, but living and dining rooms can be considered sleeping areas. A family must first find a landlord willing to rent to them and have enough space to comply with the voucher.
Stang is hopeful that some of the public housing units that the city plans to sell could be purchased by landlords to provide housing for refugees. She says some of them have multiple bedrooms to accommodate larger families.
“It is a tremendous opportunity for any of the organizations that are working with the IRC now. I know they have a group of landlords that they work with routinely,” said Stang. “That could put an influx of available units in our community.”
Story by: Samantha Boring | KSN Reporter
Samantha Boring joined the KSN News team in June 2022 as a weekend morning anchor/reporter. She comes from KAAL News in Rochester, MN where she was the morning reporter, but also anchored and produced. She covered a variety of stories including the death of George Floyd, the distribution of the first COVID vaccines by Mayo Clinic, and the December 15, 2021, storms and tornados that wiped through southern Minnesota and northern Iowa.
She grew up in Gardner, Kansas and attended the University of Minnesota, studying journalism. During her time in college, she interned with the campus magazine, The Wake where she covered features. She also interned at WESH2 News in Orlando, FL covering the 50th Anniversary of the moon landing and her first rocket launch. She also spent time as a Twin Cities Live intern and had a mentorship at Twin Cities PBS on the show Almanac at the Capitol.
Samantha enjoys meeting new people each day and is excited to tell the stories of those in her home state. She has a golden retriever named Schroeder that keeps her busy. She enjoys rollerblading, shopping, and exploring Wichita.