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Burned up and priced out: Santa Rosa fire evacuees fear they can’t afford to return

For Sharon Ditmore, the signs of the holidays showing up in this city devastated by fire are both comforting and depressing.

Ditmore lost her home in the working-class neighborhood of Coffey Park and has been living in a friend’s guesthouse. She can’t help but think back to the Thanksgiving gatherings she enjoyed with family members in the home she and her husband had rented for nearly 30 years.

But in the future, she and the thousands of others who lost homes see nothing but uncertainty. With rents surging as high as $13,000 a month in the aftermath of a fire that destroyed 3,000 Santa Rosa homes, they are not sure they will be able to afford to stay in the increasingly expensive wine country city.

“My landlord said he plans to rebuild,” said Ditmore, 62, who ran a day-care business out of her home. “If I can afford to move back, I will. But like so many others, I’ll have to wait and see.”

Hers was one of hundreds of homes that burned down last month in Coffey Park, where about 40% of the residents were renters. A website recently posted by Gallaher Construction Inc. of Santa Rosa, titled “Bring Back Coffey Park: Looking to Rebuild or Sell?,” has only stoked concerns that a neighborhood reduced to ashes will be rebuilt as something vastly different.

A month after wildfires ripped through this city of more than 160,000, there are debates about the fate of working-class residents and undocumented immigrants, the shortage of available housing for displaced residents that has pushed rental rates into the stratosphere, and whether the firestorm will trigger an exodus of engineers, doctors and nurses, teachers, emergency responders and agricultural workers — and with it an economic downturn.

The dissension is playing out at town hall gatherings, on social media platforms and in the opinion pages of local newspapers as the hard facts about the economic and social costs of rebuilding efforts start to take hold.

“It’s chaos here because we’ve got big issues with big cost considerations — and no plan in place to tackle them,” said Keith Christopherson, who owns a construction company that built hundreds of the ridgeline homes destroyed in Santa Rosa’s affluent Fountaingrove district.

“When people ask what it’ll cost to rebuild their homes, I say, ‘I don’t know,’ to keep their spirits up,” he said. “But the truth is that costs and rent payments will be pushed up by code upgrades and severe shortages of local available housing, labor and basic building materials such as wall board, concrete and paint.”

As of Tuesday, amid the largest debris-removal campaign in state history, about 13,000 claims have been submitted by Sonoma County residents for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance of some kind, officials said.

The federal government has advanced $5.8 million to residents who lost their homes, and the state has requested $7.9 billion from Washington to fund long-term recovery efforts, state Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) said.

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County officials expect to start creating temporary housing options next week for seniors on fixed incomes. But the vast scale of the destruction has left them grappling with questions about how they can afford to recruit, house and pay for an army of laborers to expedite construction of permanent homes without deep cuts in funding for basic services.

“We’ve lost a major source of revenue, property taxes, which account for roughly a third of our budget,” said Shirlee Zane, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. “That means every single person who lives and works here is going to be affected.”

“We don’t want teachers, police officers, firefighters and county workers who lost their homes to move elsewhere with their insurance checks,” she added. “So, we’re trying very hard to find the healthiest way forward. In the meantime, we have to have patience.”

Targets of criticism include Rebuild North Bay, a new nonprofit organization composed of 18 influential business leaders, fundraisers, bankers and lawyers who say they are dedicated to establishing plans to rebuild homes and protect the dominant forces in the local economy: wine and tourism.

The group’s unveiling at a recent town hall gathering, however, drew sharply mixed reactions. Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, for example, stood up and expressed disappointment over the lack of diversity among its leaders — nearly all of them white men — in a county where 26% of the population is Latino.

Some others questioned the 501(c)(4) status of the group — led by James Lee Witt, a former FEMA director — which, unlike the more common 501(c)(3) status, allows it to engage in unlimited lobbying and promotion of political candidates.

In response to those concerns, Ken Garcia, a spokesman for the group, said, “We’re working on a plan to create a more diverse board.”

Some homeowners were dismayed by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ recent adoption of a 45-day moratorium on the issuance of new vacation rental permits. The move was intended to keep emergency housing available for displaced residents — not wine country tourists.

But some residents saw Airbnb and other short-term rentals as a means of providing some of the only temporary housing available for people who lost their homes — and lucrative income streams for the property owners.

It’s not the first time short-term rentals have stirred controversies in the aftermath of a disaster. When a leaking Southern California Gas Co. natural gas well forced thousands of San Fernando Valley residents out of their homes in late 2015, rates at nearby hotel and motel rooms jumped as high as $8,500 a month.

There’s talk in town about price gouging, as the median rent in Santa Rosa has surged to $2,982 — a 16% increase since September, before the fires, according to Zillow Real Estate Research. Countywide, median rent rose 36% to $3,224 over the same period.

Price gouging “is not a matter that I take lightly,” Sonoma County Dist. Atty. Jill Ravitch said. “I am prepared to prosecute those unscrupulous individuals who try to turn a profit at the expense of our neighbors and friends.”

But property owners who are benefiting from the rent uptick say it’s the result of insurance companies doing their jobs.

“I’ve been getting a lot of hateful messages from people who think we’re taking advantage of the situation — but they’re wrong,” said Randy Knight, chief executive of 5StarVR.com, a vacation rental company whose recent offerings on Zillow included a 4-bedroom Santa Rosa home listed at $13,000 a month. “These people don’t realize that we’re responding to insurance companies desperately trying to accommodate clients who need a place to live.”

Ronald and Marcela Arowcavage would not argue with any of that. Immediately after listing for $12,000 a month a 3,300-square-foot home they bought for $370,000, “we were bombarded with inquiries from insurance company representatives,” Ronald Arowcavage, 58, said.

On Saturday, the Arowcavages leased the house on a tidy, leafy street in the town of Windsor, just off Highway 101 and about three miles north of Santa Rosa, for one year to two displaced Fountaingrove property owners who plan to share the premises.

Their insurance companies, Ronald said, were handling the payments.

Louis.Sahagun@latimes.com

@LouisSahagun

 

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