California is on fire. Again. The state’s 2018 wildfire season has been devastating, and it’s not over yet. The dramatic Woolsey and Hill fires scorching the hills around Los Angeles are still being brought under control, and first responders are battling the Camp Fire in Butte County, which has killed at least 56 people and torn through 140,000 acres and more than 10,000 structures.
Recovery from wildfires can take years, and for affected communities, one aspect is especially pressing: Housing. California’s housing prices are infamously high, and in Butte County, this problem is particularly bad. With 19.5 percent of the county living below the poverty line, explains Ed Mayer, Executive Director of the Housing Authority of the County of Butte, many households are heavily rent-burdened.
Five of his 36 staffers from around Butte County lost their homes in the blaze and many others are housing friends and family left houseless by the fire. The Camp Fire was most devastating in Paradise, where 95 percent of the city’s residential and commercial buildings are gone, says Mayer. The county as a whole lost a staggering 10 percent of its housing stock in the Camp Fire.
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“Prior to the crisis, we had a vacancy rate of maybe 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent,” he says, estimating that Butte had approximately 1,000 units available around the county before the fire. That’s far short of the 6,000 households, including some receiving housing assistance, that will be looking for new homes after theirs were destroyed. Evacuees from Paradise are predominantly low-income elders and disabled people who settled there for a unique combination of affordable housing (by California standards) and access to medical services, he explains, a situation they may struggle to find elsewhere in the state.
He fears low-income residents may leave the state altogether, while others may be left doubling up with friends and family or moving in and out of shelters and the street. Mayer even raised the prospect of “tent cities” akin to those seen during the Dust Bowl to accommodate desperate residents, some of whom are already camping due to the lack of sheltering options. The local alternatives, like neighboring Oroville, are unlikely to meet the needs of evacuees — 60 percent of Oroville renters are already paying more than 50 percent of their income in rent and utilities every month. Oroville was also in the headlines in 2017 for its crumbling dam, which itself may be threatened by the fire.
“This is not the first time this has happened,” Mayer says, noting that Butte County reached out to officials in Santa Rosa, where last year’s Tubbs Fire destroyed nearly 6,000 structures, including in low-income neighborhoods, to learn more about how they handled losing five percent of their housing stock to a fast-moving wildfire. The lessons from Santa Rosa and surrounding Sonoma County may prove to be instructive for other communities in the state facing similar catastrophes.
In the weeks and months after the Santa Rosa fires, rents began soaring, and so did property values, though Governor Jerry Brown instituted temporary price gouging protections that led to at least one successful prosecution. Construction costs also began to rise, further crunching homeowners attempting to rebuild and complicated by a proliferation of unlicensed and unqualified contractors flocking to the area to take advantage of property owners eager to start rebuilding.
In Santa Rosa, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat estimated the housing crunch caused by the Tubbs fire drove some 7,000 people to leave the city of 175,000, and over 1,000 fled the county altogether — some, tragically, for Butte County. Renters particularly struggled, with working-class people and undocumented immigrants heavily represented amongst those scrambling for housing. According to the industry-supported Insurance Information Institute, only 37 percent of renters carried renters’ insurance for their homes, which left many renters with limited resources to replace belongings, let alone find new homes. Long, uncertain waits while property owners determined whether and how to rebuild were compounded by housing scarcity and rising prices, making it hard to stay in the area in the aftermath of the fire. Sonoma County was ultimately forced to declare a homelessness crisis to access funds for people experiencing homelessness, with rates climbing six percent in the aftermath of the fire.
Yet, even with an obvious crisis, Santa Rosa voters just rejected a $124 million bond measure designated for affordable housing.
According to CoreLogic, rents tend to spike after disasters, as illustrated in the aftermaths of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey as well as the Tubbs fire. Delinquencies also increase as impacted residents fall behind on their mortgage payments, and something else happens too: Property tax revenues drop, at the precise moment counties and municipalities need that money most. Another Santa Rosa ballot measure, which passed, approved a temporary sales tax increase to provide funding for emergency services, offsetting some of these tax losses. But sales taxes are regressive: they place the highest burden on the people who are most likely to need the support.
These trends are highly predictable, yet communities are still unprepared for them.
The Camp Fire is the deadliest in California history, but devastating wildfires are no longer shocking exceptions. They are the status quo for the Golden State, which has hit the frontlines of climate change just like hurricane-wracked communities across the country in the South. Another CoreLogic study estimates over 48,000 homes are at risk from wildfires in California, many in communities that have already burned before, sometimes multiple times. California’s own Climate Change Assessment, released in August of this year, found that the number of acres burned by fire throughout the state will increase by 77 percent by 2100 as a result of impacts from climate change.
Decreasing rainfall is desiccating already fire-prone environments right as the wind kicks up in the summer and fall, and all it takes is a spark from a flat tire, poorly maintained electrical line, or bad hot tub wiring to ignite a fire. Embattled utility company Pacific Gas and Electric has already taken the unprecedented step of temporary power cuts during periods of high fire risk in an attempt to avoid sparking another conflagration, and a group of Camp Fire survivors just filed suit against the utility, claiming it played a role in the fire that took their homes, though the cause remains under investigation.
“I don’t know,” says Mayer, pausing for a moment to gather his thoughts. “There’s major decisions facing the community.” It’s a sentiment echoed across fire-prone California, from Santa Rosa officials agonizing over whether and where to approve new developments to the fire evacuees roaming the aisles of drugstores far from home in search of replacement toothbrushes.