Capitol Alert

Wildfires raise fear of a ‘mass exodus’ by residents unable to afford housing

A look at widespread fire devastation in Santa Rosa

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore surveys devastation of the Santa Rosa fires in his district on Oct. 14, 2017. "This just looks like a nuclear blast."
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Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore surveys devastation of the Santa Rosa fires in his district on Oct. 14, 2017. "This just looks like a nuclear blast."

The fast-moving fires that ripped through Northern California last week worsened a problem North Bay officials have struggled with for the past two years: A severe housing shortage that is pushing poor and working class residents out as prices continue to rise.

The deadly urban wildfires killed at least 41 people and destroyed 6,700 homes and businesses, and wiped out entire neighborhoods in and around Santa Rosa, Sonoma County’s largest city that is home to nearly 175,000 people. It’s estimated that 5 percent of the city’s housing stock is gone, with more homes destroyed outside its limits.

“This area is middle-class,” Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said on a recent day as he surveyed the damage in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, which is in his district.This is not rich folks, this is where people struggled to make their rent...a lot of plumbers, a lot of teachers. People who can barely meet their mortgage.”

The destruction has prompted new challenges for state and local officials as communities begin to rebuild. Chief among them? How to assemble enough state and federal assistance to prevent low- and middle-income people, displaced by the fires, from fleeing Sonoma County for cheaper living elsewhere.

Rents have skyrocketed across the region in recent years as the vacancy rate hovers around 1 percent and home prices soar. Residents are spending 30 to 50 percent of their income or more on housing. State and federal resources are stretched thin, as floods, fires and hurricanes have gripped the nation and California confronts an unprecedented, statewide housing crisis. Meanwhile, many whose homes burned are finding their insurance policies won’t cover the cost of rebuilding. Others lack home or renter’s insurance altogether. Some say the task of rebuilding could be more difficult because of an ongoing construction worker shortage.

“Where am I going to go?” asked Claudette Soulier, 68, who on Saturday worried her Kenwood home, in Sonoma Valley, burned down. Even if it’s standing, she’s worried her landlord will kick her out to rebuild or sell the property.

“What I know, as a renter, is I’ll have to leave this county to find something,” she said. “I was already scared of not being able to stay here before, with my little $900 per month in Social Security. Now there’s even less housing available.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is actively encouraging people affected by the fires to apply for disaster assistance, which could help with rent, temporary shelter and rebuilding. But some some current and former elected officials fear the scale of the damage will eclipse the level of aid available, leading to the potential for permanent displacement of those barely making ends meet. The issue raises broader concerns among elected officials for how the state and local communities meet housing needs after a disaster.

Fires are becoming more common in California, so the state must find ways to prevent long-term displacement of lower-income people and minorities from their communities, state and local officials said.

Sonoma County housing advocates say they’re already hearing concerns from low-income people, agricultural and service industry workers and the undocumented that they’ll be forced out.

Ana Lugo, president of housing advocacy group North Bay Organizing Project, said on Oct. 14, 2017 that many of those displaced by the Wine Country fires need housing and protection.

“There is already so little housing here,” said Ana Lugo, president of the North Bay Organizing Project, a housing advocacy nonprofit that spearheaded the unsuccessful 2016 campaign to pass rent control in Santa Rosa. “Two sides of the city were decimated, but that is two very different levels of resources and wealth.”

Lugo contrasted Santa Rosa’s upscale Fountaingrove neighborhood, home to doctors and lawyers and other more affluent families, with Coffey Park, home to teachers and electricians and firefighters.

“One side is going to be able to rebuild, but what about the other?” Lugo asked.

Omar Medina, also with the North Bay Organizing Project, said he’s concerned about landlords jacking up rents, and high housing demand placing greater pressure on tenants in lower-income neighborhoods to move.

“All these people that are displaced are going to need a place to live while their homes get rebuilt,” Medina said. “We’re worried about people with more resources displacing the more low-income and middle-class people as they look for rentals.”

Price-gouging is illegal under California law, and that covers any rent increase greater than 10 percent, according to state Attorney General Xavier Becerra. A team of lawyers are in the region investigating fraudulent activity, and officials are encouraging anyone who sees spikes to take screenshots or document allegations in another way and report it to the attorney general’s office.

Government assistance available to help communities recover after disasters is vast, and California Democrats in Congress have vowed to fight for more money. Existing policy prioritizes public services and infrastructure, including schools, roads, bridges, safe water and functioning utilities. When it comes to housing, communities have relied on insurance, as well as the help of individual donors and private investors. Agencies are often required to cobble together a mix of public and private funds to assist rebuilding efforts, according to Mary Comerio, a professor of architecture at UC Berkeley and expert on disaster recovery.

“Government funding to assist with housing – which typically represents 50 percent of the value of any disaster loss – is very limited,” Comerio wrote in a 2014 disaster assessment for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, adding that state and federal resources “are insufficient to meet the needs in contemporary society.”

After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005, hundreds of thousands of people from New Orleans and the surrounding area were displaced. Before Katrina, the population of New Orleans stood at about 485,000, but that fell to just over 250,000 in 2006 – a loss of more than half the city’s population, according to an analysis by “The Data Center,” an independent nonprofit in Louisiana that tracks the long-term impacts of natural disasters, among other research areas.

By 2015, the population was back to about 385,000, but a large share of those who fled their homes more than a decade ago have made permanent homes in other parts of Louisiana and neighboring states, including Texas and other parts of the South. African Americans and young people were disproportionately displaced by the hurricane, according to a 2014 study published by the National Institutes of Health in the journal Demography.

We run the risk of becoming old, white and affluent. That’s not the kind of community I think we want.

Noreen Evans, former state lawmaker

Katrina provides a grim lesson for California, some believe.

“I worry about a mass exodus,” said Noreen Evans, an environmental attorney who represented part of Santa Rosa for a decade in the Legislature. “So many people were already on the verge (of leaving) before this.”

Evans was volunteering to help fire victims this past weekend. In addition to funding from the federal government, she said the state can play a role by boosting public housing subsidies and speeding development.

“Teachers and firefighters – the people who are out there right now risking their lives fighting this fire – they are going to need places to live,” she said. “The Bay Area is already so impacted housing-wise, so there are no outlying communities where people can easily move to that have the housing stock necessary.

“The long-term implications are that we’ll become more economically stratified, young people won’t be able to live here, and we run the risk of becoming old, white and affluent,” Evans added. “That’s not the kind of community I think we want.”

State Sen. Mike McGuire, whose North Coast district includes Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties, said the state has a vital role to play in helping Santa Rosa and other communities rebuild.

He and other officials are staking out temporary housing solutions, which could include tiny home villages, FEMA modular homes and long-term hotel vouchers.

“We’re going to have to house individuals for the next 12-24 months while they rebuild their homes,” McGuire said Saturday, as he helped collect donations for fire victims downtown Santa Rosa. He shares concerns about losing people from the community who can no longer afford to live there.

“The reason why Sonoma County is so strong is because we have a diversity of populations. It’s what makes us thrive,” he said. “We can’t lose that heart, and it’s why we are so focused right now, even in the fierce firefight, on what it will take to keep that heart pumping strong.”

McGuire said the effort will require a massive public-private investment. He’s seeking help from nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity, private investors, the federal government and the state. The massive housing package recently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown will be key, McGuire said. A real estate recording fee signed into law is slated to provide the state roughly $250 million per year in ongoing revenue for homelessness programs and housing construction, and $4 billion in one-time monies for new construction and veteran home loans.

“We’re already lining up potential budget requests from the state to assist with workforce housing...we have existing funds, plus we have the housing package dollars as well,” McGuire said.“We want to build on what we did after the Valley Fire...turning renters into homebuyers, and those who struggled with their mortgage into owners of property that they can afford.”

He said, however, that the size and scope of the blazes that have burned in the region for more than a week reflect the need for California to re-examine how it deals with wildfire and its aftermath. He is calling for broad legislative solutions to deal with emergency response, infrastructure and housing.

“I rival this to the 1906 (San Francisco) earthquake,” McGuire said. “Never before has this state seen so many large, catastrophic events all at once.”

To adapt, he suggested further streamlining of the building process, stronger mandates for insurance companies to cover property losses after fire and re-establishing local redevelopment agencies, which before Brown dissolved them in 2011, boosted local government coffers with property tax dollars for housing and other development. Brown at the time cited massive waste and abuse in how money was spent.

Statewide, cities and counties diverted more than $1 billion per year in property taxes to redevelopment agencies.

McGuire said the program should be tightly controlled to focus on affordable and workforce housing, public infrastructure like sewer and water, as well as preparing for sea level rise.

“Even with (Senate Bill 2 and Senate Bill 3) that passed, that’s just a drop in the bucket in terms of what we need,” he said, referring to the funding bills in the housing package. “We need to rethink how and where we’re building...we need to be prepared for more large wildland events like this. The Earth’s temperature is warming, the ocean is warming. We need to be prepared.”

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