Dorcas International- Finding Homes Amidst the Affordable Housing Shortage

by Maru Attwood
July 18, 2023

Part I: Dorcas International: Finding Homes Amidst the Affordable Housing Shortage

By the time refugees arrive in Rhode Island, they have fled conflict, persecution or displacement in their home countries and have typically spent months or years in a second country, frequently in a refugee camp. If they manage to navigate an intricate international bureaucracy and secure the opportunity to resettle permanently, they are part of the one percent of refugees internationally who have the chance to do so. But making a secure, affordable home in Rhode Island comes with challenges. 

As rents have risen and Rhode Island’s housing supply has remained low, securing truly affordable, safe, long-term homes for recently resettled refugees is increasingly difficult. Most refugee resettlement in the state is carried out by Dorcas International —  the largest of two refugee resettlement agencies in Rhode Island, the other being the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence. Finding housing “is probably the biggest issue. Rents are up. There’s a shortage…there’s not enough stock out there,” says Sarah Antaya, the Assistant Director for Refugee Programs at Dorcas International. 

A lack of affordable housing impacts all low-income people in Rhode Island. According to the Rhode Island Foundation, around 24 thousand affordable housing units need to be made available to address the shortage. But the rate that Rhode Island has addressed the housing crisis has been far too slow. In 2021, the state ranked last in the US for annual housing production per 1,000 residents.

Dorcas International is at the forefront of the housing crisis’ impacts on refugees. The support offered by the resettlement agency goes a long way to make the state a permanent, more affordable home for refugees. This is the first article in a two-part series on how Rhode Island’s affordable housing crisis impacts refugees in Rhode Island. Read the second article, focused on the work of the Refugee Dream Center here

Refugee Resettlement 

Dorcas International is housed in two buildings on Elmwood Avenue in Providence. Their bright and welcoming walk-in center is often bustling with people on their way to adult education classes, one of many services that the organization offers to help refugees, refugees, immigrants and  anyone, regardless of their immigration status though the language, economic, educational and cultural obstacles of living in the United States. They also offer low-cost legal services, translation services and career training. One of their functions is as a refugee resettlement agency. 

Refugee resettlement is “offering folks who have been designated as refugees … a real opportunity at a life in a third country,” Antaya explains. There are dozens of aspects to resettling in Rhode Island, and Dorcas International supports all of them, ranging from welcoming new arrivals at the airport to all-embracing case management, from enrolling children in school to teaching adults English and providing them with job training.  An essential part of refugee resettlement is providing housing upon arrival. 

An Affordable Housing Shortage 

Antaya has worked at Dorcas International for thirteen years and has gained so much experience that one of her co-workers, Julie Cofone described her as “a human vault filled with information.” Antaya says that over her years at the agency, finding affordable housing for refugees has always been difficult. But over the past few years, it’s become immensely challenging.

More expensive apartments, often with high application fees, are readily available, but Antaya explains, “We don't want to put a family in an apartment where it's impossible for them to pay their own rent.”

The staff at Dorcas International are perpetually searching for new affordable housing. “If we can get an apartment, we grab it, and we hold it empty because we know we're going to need it at some point. We don't wait for the travel notice to come because a week and a half is not enough to find an apartment,” says Antaya. The time that the agency has to prepare before new refugees arrive is highly variable. Jordan Towle, Housing Coordinator at Dorcas International, describes it as a “dice roll.”

“Especially for bigger families. It's really a challenge [to find an affordable apartment],” explains Towle. On a single income, affording a full apartment can be near impossible. Part of this is because there is a shortage of multi-family homes. According to the RI Foundation’s Housing Supply and Homelessness in Rhode Island Report, approximately 800 multi-family units have been built since 2011. 

Especially in the current housing market, “it’s gotten a lot harder for folks to afford rent,” says Towle. When refugees arrive in Rhode Island, Dorcas International covers their rent for the first few months, officially three but sometimes up to six or seven. “They have that buffer of time to figure out how everything works and then be independent and pay rent on their own," says Towle. During this period, refugees also often take English classes and receive support to find employment. “It's not a long time, so they have to hit the ground running,” emphasizes Antaya. 

Rental housing assistance can offer some relief, but the applications require intricate paperwork. Even when people are working with caseworkers, the long applications for Section 8 Housing and rent relief programs like RentReliefRI, which ran during the height of the pandemic, can be a prohibitive barrier for people with limited familiarity with US systems and reading and writing English, says Towle.

Antaya emphasizes that the demand for housing by refugees is not very large. She is concerned that the public may mistakenly and damagingly assume that refugee arrivals contribute to the low housing supply. To illustrate that this is not the case, Dorcas International, the largest refugee resettlement agency in Rhode Island, resettles an average of about one or two families a month.

“Not just another transient place to stop off” 

“In Rhode Island, there are a lot of older homes. They're not super fancy or super new.  We seek that out because we want the rent to be affordable for people,” explained Towle. The agency works with volunteers to fully furnish homes with everything from couches to toothbrushes. “If [refugees] are hoping that Rhode Island is going to be the end destination for them… you want [their new houses] to feel homely and cozy.” It is important that it’s “not just another transient place to stop off.” 

Towle says it's a challenge to make sure budget apartments are safe and clean. She and others working on housing at Dorcas International take extra care to ensure new homes are lead safety compliant and they often arrange upgrades before tenants arrive. Volunteers are also always needed for this work. 

Dorcas International is currently working with a contractor to build ramps to make an apartment accessible for people who use wheelchairs. “Finding accessible housing that is also affordable has been nothing short of impossible,” says Towle. “There could definitely be a better database for people seeking accessible housing. That would be a pretty simple thing to do and I think it would make a really big difference,” she says.

Relationships with Landlords 

“We had to have landlords willing to be really flexible — to agree to rent to someone they can't meet right now,” explains Antaya. Refugees are screened through a long, multi-layered process before arriving in the United States, but she also notes, “There’s no credit check in a refugee camp.” Nor do they usually have employment secured when they arrive in the U.S. Finding willing landlords means demonstrating that Dorcas International, as a resettlement agency, will secure the first few month's rent as refugee tenants find employment and become able to pay rent independently.  

“A lot of the landlords we work with are also sometimes new to the U.S. themselves," says Towle. Many of these landlords are immigrants and refugees that were once clients of Dorcas International themselves. Landlords like this tend to be more understanding and accommodating. “We count on those relationships,” says Antaya. 

In recent years, there has been a rise in companies and corporate investors buying up and leasing housing. Not only does this often push rents up even higher, but the corporatization of housing makes the already difficult task of securing housing as a refugee resettlement agency even more difficult without relationships with individual landlords. “Smaller landlords are much more flexible with our client's needs,” says Towle.

Ways to Support Dorcas International 

There is a real need for community support through the housing crisis. There are many opportunities to sustain the indispensable work that Dorcas International does. Property owners who are open to renting an apartment or house to a refugee family should reach out to Dorcas International’s housing coordinator, Jordan Towle  [email protected]. Jordan also highlights that Dorcas International always needs volunteers to help set up apartments and homes. Reach out to [email protected] if you’d like to volunteer. 


Maru Attwood’ 24 is a History concentrator from South Africa. She writes as part of the Swearer Center’s Storytellers Series. On campus, she organizes for climate and housing justice with Sunrise and HOPE.