Three beds fill one bedroom shared by six children in a two-bedroom El Cajon apartment, July 25, 2017. (Megan Wood, inewsource)

A local refugee resettlement agency is searching for a new executive director little more than a week after the organization’s national office found the affiliate had violated housing policies.

A spokesman for the International Rescue Committee‘s headquarters in New York confirmed David Murphy is no longer the relief agency’s executive director in San Diego, but would not address additional questions. A posting for the position appeared online last week.

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This is part of an ongoing series about the struggles refugees face when they make San Diego County their home. The series is a collaboration of reporters, photographers, videographers and editors at inewsource, KPBS and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. Why this topic? Since 2009, more than 23,000 refugees have settled in the county, more than any other region in California.

Earlier this month, the national office said the San Diego affiliate had engaged in housing placement practices that were “inconsistent” with its policies, but declined to discuss its findings further.

The agency’s statement followed a KPBS investigation first published in July that found seven families, who arrived during a rush of refugees last year, living in El Cajon apartments with more people than were listed on their leases, a potential contract violation.

Some families told KPBS they were specifically advised by IRC San Diego staff to sign incorrect rental documents because larger affordable apartments were difficult to find in the region’s tough rental market. Others said they were unaware the papers were inaccurate when they signed them.

KPBS initially interviewed then-executive director Murphy in March about one family’s case. After looking into the situation, he said he could not determine why fewer names appeared on the family’s lease. When KPBS later spoke with additional refugee families in similar situations, Murphy declined an interview, but said staffers told him they did not instruct families to conceal the number of residents living in their home. Murphy did not return a request for comment regarding the job posting.  

The resettlement agency receives a one-time stipend of federal dollars to cover housing and other needs for refugees, who often don’t speak English when they first arrive from countries where they fear or experienced persecution. Federal, state and local occupancy guidelines vary slightly, but generally suggest no more than six people in a two-bedroom apartment. KPBS found families of seven and eight living in apartments that size, but names of some occupants had been omitted on their leases.
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Nils Rosenquest, a San Francisco attorney who focuses on housing and real estate law, said because there is no universal rule, occupancy limits are often decided by who runs the apartment building.

“It’s up to the landlord to choose, subject to certain local limitations, but the landlord can choose anything that’s reasonable provided it’s nondiscriminatory,” Rosenquest said in a past interview.

Cases of discrimination are investigated by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Director Kevin Kish said a complaint must be filed in order for his office to launch an inquiry, but familial status may be considered when it’s reviewing a landlord’s occupancy policy.

“I mean, the age of the children also plays into the analysis of how reasonable the restriction is,” Kish previously told KPBS.

The IRC’s national office said that it is working to support the affected families, but did not give details. Refugees interviewed by KPBS say they have received little assistance. However one family said the local agency found it a larger apartment with a six-month lease, but the family declined because it wanted a longer time period.

In total, four families received notices to vacate their homes because of too many people. Two others worry they also may be asked to leave. The seventh family’s situation rectified itself when an older child moved out of the apartment.

Community members helped one family find a new place, but the other five families said they are still searching for larger homes they can afford. One is planning to move to Michigan.

More in the series…

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[two_third_last]Falsified documents leave San Diego refugees vulnerable
Refugees interviewed during a five-month investigation allege San Diego’s International Rescue Committee staff encouraged them to falsely declare their family’s size on rental forms because larger apartments were too costly.[/two_third_last]

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[two_third_last]Refugee families forced to move; too many living in their apartments
Three large refugee families that a local nonprofit helped resettle at an El Cajon apartment complex are being asked to move because they have too many people living in their homes.[/two_third_last]

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[two_third_last]National relief group finds San Diego office violated policies in housing refugees
The national headquarters of the International Rescue Committee says it has found problems with the way its San Diego branch placed refugees in homes. The announcement follows a KPBS investigation into allegations that refugees were told to sign falsified rental documents to get their large families into apartments. [/two_third_last]

Tarryn Mento is the health reporter for KPBS. She has reported from three countries and in two languages. Her work has been published by The Washington Post, the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News, and El Nuevo Herald. Prior to serving as KPBS' health reporter, Tarryn was the multimedia producer...