California Wildfires Increase Vulnerability to Homelessness

California’s efforts to tackle the affordable housing and homelessness crisis experienced yet another setback last month when two wildfires broke out in Northern and Southern California.  The Camp Fire, which engulfed parts of Butte County, quickly became the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire. Officials estimate that the fire consumed more than 150,000 acres, destroyed over 18,000 structures, and claimed 85 lives. The Woolsey Fire killed two people in Malibu and another in Agoura Hills and destroyed 1,452 structures while damaging another 337.

The damage from this year’s Camp Fire surpassed that of last year’s Tubbs Fire, which killed 44 people and destroyed over 9,000 structures in Napa and Sonoma Counties. The City of Santa Rosa was the hardest-hit with entire neighborhoods destroyed.

Fires Fuel Housing Instability

Remains of a house in Santa Rosa, after the October 2017 Northern California wildfires.

The wildfires highlight, and even exacerbate, the vulnerability and housing instability experienced by an increasing number of low- and moderate-income Californians. The town of Paradise, which lost 90 percent of its housing stock in the Camp Fire, had a median home price of $200,900, well below California’s median price of $578,850. The town’s residents—mainly lower-income workers and retirees—will struggle to find new housing amid California’s housing shortage and soaring housing costs. Moreover, many residents have lost their jobs due to the destruction of the town’s infrastructure. Without the means to leave the town, some will remain in evacuation shelters.

Although the Red Cross set up six official shelters, a number of evacuees set up encampments elsewhere following a norovirus outbreak. Others found shelter in relatives’ homes, with as many as 20 people staying in one home at a time, creating severe overcrowding.

Officials worry that, even with help from state and federal aid, a “secondary increase” in homelessness may occur due to added pressures on the area’s housing stock.  A rural community, such as Butte County, has a limited housing supply and the squeeze on resources will be severe. Ed Mayer, executive director of the Butte County Housing Authority, estimates that 6,000 to 7,000 displaced households will be unable to find housing in the county.[7] If the needs of these low- and middle-income survivors are not met, homelessness could increase. At greatest risk are low-income households who lack insurance and who could soon go from staying in hotels to living in their cars or on the streets.

Rebuilding Efforts Should Anticipate a New “Normal”

Earlier this year, the Sonoma County Community Development Commission released a report that showed a six percent increase in homelessness in 2018 compared to the previous year, and 24 to 35 percent increase in first-time homelessness– indicating that the fires played a role in residents’ living situation.

While rebuilding efforts in Northern California are only just beginning following last year’s blaze, the City of Santa Rosa reported 765 units were under construction and permits for another 181 units had been issued as of October 2017. [8] Diana Elrod, Principal, has been working with the Sonoma County Community Development Commission to create a strategic plan to move the county forward in the wake of the fires and secure funding to support the rebuilding plan.

Given the effects of climate change, Californians should prepare for scenarios in which wildfire damage becomes the “new normal.” Technological advancements are also needed to help protect people living in fire-prone areas. Numerous reports from 2017’s wildfires recounted stories of people who struggled to open their garage doors manually, especially elderly victims. One example of an effort to increase protection from wildfire damage and injury is a new California law that requires automatic garage doors sold in the state to include a back-up battery that can provide power in the event of power outage.

Last year’s wildfires also spurred new legislation to help homeowners rebuild. These laws give victims up to 36 months to rebuild their homes and businesses (SB 1772), allow homeowners with insufficient coverage to combine payments under other policy limits to cover rebuilding costs (SB 894), and permit policyholders to collect the full replacement cost of their home even if they choose not to rebuild or opt to relocate (AB 1800). Other new laws require insurers to follow specific guidelines for conducting replacement cost estimates (AB 1797) and prevent insurers from cancelling or not renewing policies in fire prone regions (SB 824).

Headshot of LDC Principal Kris KuntzKris Kuntz, Principal, is passionate about creating innovative solutions to address homelessness. Prior to joining LDC, he performed agency-wide evaluation activities for San Diego’s largest homeless services agency, that included a drop day center, emergency shelter, transitional housing, rapid re-housing, permanent supportive housing, and a federally qualified health center.  He was an integral part of Project 25, San Diego’s successful homeless high utilizer project and worked with Managed Care Organizations to sustain the project after the United Way’s initial investment. To learn more about LDC’s work with homeless assistance systems, contact him at kris@lesardevelopment.com.

Diana ElrodDiana Elrod, Principal, brings more than 30 years of consulting and public sector experience to her work co-leading LDC’s housing policy and real estate finance team. Before joining LDC, she provided strategic counsel and conducted research on Housing and Community Development for the Cities of Lafayette, Belmont, Palo Alto, San Jose, San Mateo, and the County of Santa Clara. She also has completed Housing Elements and Consolidated Plans for jurisdictions throughout California. She can be reached at diana@lesardevelopment.