Northern California fire victims may want to rebuild. But can they find someone to do it?

Digging through the ashes near Coffey Park

Chris Bipes, his wife, Kim, and his neighbor, Craig Lowry, dig through the ashes of his home near Coffey Park in hopes of finding valuables such as his coin collection and other items on Monday in Santa Rosa.
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Chris Bipes, his wife, Kim, and his neighbor, Craig Lowry, dig through the ashes of his home near Coffey Park in hopes of finding valuables such as his coin collection and other items on Monday in Santa Rosa.

Kim Bipes spent part of this week sifting through the ashes of her Santa Rosa home, one of thousands destroyed in California’s wildfires. She was looking for any keepsakes she could find, but her attention was also spinning forward to the challenge of rebuilding.

“We are all going to be competing for contractors,” she said Monday while scavenging for her family’s silver coin collection.

Thousands of people lost their homes in the fires that swept Northern California last week. As firefighters began to tame the blazes, these refugees were coming to terms not only with the loss of nearly all their belongings, but also with the difficulties that they will likely face as they try to rebuild.

Labor costs, a shortage of contractors, insurance uncertainties and safety concerns could all delay or drive up the price of rebuilding in Northern California, especially in high-cost Sonoma and Napa counties. Labor shortages are a particular headache.

“It was hard to get workers before the fires, because the living costs in Sonoma and Napa are so much higher than elsewhere,” said Philip Martin, a labor economist at University of California, Davis. “Most people would say it is even going to get even harder to find workers after the fires.”

Some of those workers have been directly affected by the fires – they lost their own homes, were forced to evacuate or lost vehicles needed for employment. Matthew Egan, business representative of the Painters and Drywall Finishers union, said many of his members are displaced and have been moving their families from one spot to another.

“It’s very hard to find any place to stay in the North Bay,” he said.

Even in the best of times, Sonoma and Napa were not counties known for rapid home construction. Sonoma issued 581 residential building permits in 2016, the most in a decade. In Santa Rosa alone, the wildfire wiped out roughly six times that number of houses, a void that is sure to put upward pressure on housing costs across the North Bay.

People wanting to rebuild are already flooding construction firms with calls, but questions abound on how it could happen. When will scorched neighborhoods be safe to build upon? Will the counties affected enact stronger fire codes for new construction? Many homeowners have insurance. But do they have the patience for years-long rebuilding, and policies that will cover the full costs?

Herman G. Hernandez, who manages a youth apprenticeship program for the Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County, has been working for years to train high-school dropouts and others to work as plumbers, electricians and other skilled trades. Some 78 youths have graduated from the Youth Connections program since 2013, but Hernandez acknowledges that number falls far short of meeting demand.

“There was a huge need for these workers prior to the wildfires,” Hernandez said Tuesday. “Now it is an overwhelmingly pressing need.”

Basic economics explains why Sonoma has trouble attracting construction workers. This year, the official Fair Market Rent – a calculation used by the federal government to calculate housing assistance vouchers – was $1,500 for a two-bedroom apartment in Napa County and $1,400 in Sonoma County, according to Martin, the UC Davis economist. That means a worker earning $15 an hour for 160 hours a month would pay more than half of his $2,400 monthly earnings in rent.

By contrast, Fair Market Rents in Fresno, Kern and other counties in the San Joaquin Valley are about half the levels in Napa and Sonoma, Martin said.

“They’re already talking about the housing market tightening up, as if it didn’t have a stranglehold on our community already,” Egan said. “I think yes, they most likely will leave the area due to the impossibility of finding a home.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office Tuesday issued a reminder that it’s illegal to raise the price of housing, lodging or reconstruction services more than 10 percent from what they cost prior to a local emergency, and it’s a felony to offer contracting services without a license in a disaster area.

Fear may also drive an exodus of undocumented workers, who make up a significant portion of California’s housing construction workforce.

Following Hurricane Harvey, concerns about federal immigration crackdowns were reportedly affecting the recovery in Texas, where about a quarter of the state’s construction workforce is thought to be undocumented. Northern California’s recovery could face a similar impact. Undocumented immigrants make up about 21 percent of the state’s construction workforce, according to a January, 2017 report by the University of Southern California Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.

Between 5 percent and 10 percent of residents in the Coffey Park ZIP code, a neighborhood almost entirely razed by fire, are likely undocumented, according to research from the Public Policy Institute of California. They account for up to 5,000 of the 38,500 undocumented residents in Sonoma County.

The day after the fires started, dozens of families presumed to be undocumented were found sleeping on a Sonoma beach, apparently reluctant to seek public assistance because of fears of being reported to immigration authorities. Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano was forced to issue a statement, calling potential deportation “a bad rumor.”

But immigration enforcement has been more than a rumor in the Northern California construction community.

In May, two Northern California undocumented construction workers, Rodrigo Nunez and Hugo Mejia Murguia, were detained by federal immigration authorities after reporting to a remodel job on the Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, not far from the area hit by fires. Nunez, who has three American-born children, was deported in August. Mejia remains in detention near Sacramento.

Robbie Hunter, executive director of the Building and Construction Trades Council of California, said federal immigration enforcement throughout the state – and the fear it has created – has put pressure on residential building especially, an industry he said was reliant on low-wage workers more likely to be undocumented.

“That has driven a shortage that exists in the cash payment workforce,” said Hunter. “There is a shortage of people willing to work for less than minimum wage, and that’s the workforce that has largely been building residential projects.”

Despite the obstacles of rebuilding, some who have lost homes are already taking the first steps toward identifying architects, builders and building supply companies.

Sue Sloat and her husband, Dave, lost the two-story barn adjacent to their 100-plus-year-old farmhouse, one of the oldest in the area. The top floor of that structure was Dave’s man cave, she said, and the bottom story was his woodshop. For three days, they’ve been making a list of everything that was lost inside – boats, rifles, backpacking gear.

They to said they intend to raise a new structure and were already in touch with their insurance agent to begin the process. Sue Sloat said she wasn’t certain if a new barn would be like the old one, but “we’re going to rebuild something.”

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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