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‘Where do people go?’: Camp fire makes California’s housing crisis worse

‘Where do people go?’: Camp fire makes California’s housing crisis worse
Jessica Swisher kisses her 7-month-old daughter, Ryan Busby, surrounded by their belongings at a church shelter in Chico where she is staying with her husband and three other daughters after escaping the Camp fire. (Gina Ferazzi / Los AngelesTimes)

Two weeks after California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire sent thousands of evacuees fleeing the town of Paradise, “No Vacancy” signs have become a feature of the landscape here.

A second disaster is unfolding.

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Across Butte County — a primarily agricultural area known for its walnut, almond and rice farms — towns are struggling to absorb the roughly 50,000 people displaced by the Camp fire. Through no fault of their own, the evacuees’ arrival has worsened the state’s housing crisis and raised the possibility that they could be evicted from the region again, not by fire but by a scarcity of suitable dwellings.

Hotels and motels from Sacramento to Redding are full. The vacancy rate in the rental market, which hovered around 3% before the fire, has fallen to near zero. Unable to find single-family homes in the area, evacuees have resorted to renting individual bedrooms, buying recreational vehicles and purchasing travel trailers. Others are simply leaving California for other western states with a lower cost of living.

Temporary shelters run by the Red Cross to house wildfire survivors still hold more than 600 people people, many of them elderly and impoverished.

Butte County Housing Authority Executive Director Ed Mayer said that nearly 14,000 homes burned to the ground on Nov. 8, a loss of about 14% of Butte’s housing stock. Before the fire, the county’s homeless population numbered about 2,000. Now, it is expected to grow.

“The real question is where do people go?” Mayer said. “And at first blush, the answer is: probably leaving California, if they can go anywhere. Because there is no availability in California.”

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, many evacuees found shelter and comfort in the homes of relatives and obliging strangers. The North Valley Property Owners Assn. created a website — CampFireHousing.org — where hundreds of people offered their spare bedrooms and guest cottages to people who had lost their homes. Offers of help poured in from across the country.

The housing market is flush with goodwill, but little in the way of permanent solutions.

On the day before the fire broke out, the city of Chico had 243 homes for sale, said Adam Pearce, president of the North Valley group. About a week later, less than a third of them were still on the market. Pearce said that many of those that remain are new construction and are still being built.

The sudden surge in demand has led to bidding wars, with desperate families willing to pay cash sending home prices soaring.

“Some of these buyers, they don’t care if they’re going over asking [price] because they just want a home over their head,” Pearce said. “People are dipping into their retirement accounts in order to purchase property.”

Adding to the difficulty of finding long-term housing for evacuees is the fact that Butte County — like the rest of California — already had fewer homes than it needed before the fire. In Chico and Oroville, more than a third of renters were spending more than half of their income on housing each month.

The shortage has been particularly devastating for people who were struggling to make ends meet before the fire.

After the Camp fire turned her home in Paradise to ash and took everything she had, Leeanne Watts and her family of six people, four dogs and one bearded dragon lizard, found themselves stuck in a hotel in Yuba City.

Although she had recently received a voucher from the federal government’s Section 8 program that would subsidize her rent payments, Watts 41, quickly learned that Butte County landlords wouldn’t even entertain her inquiries. The voucher, which at first seemed like a stroke of unbelievable luck, had become a mark against her as a flood of tenants able to pay higher rents entered the market.

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Watts said her hotel stay is being paid for by an attorney representing her in a lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the utility company whose high-voltage line malfunctioned just minutes before the first flames were reported. She can stay until the end of the month, but where she and her family go after that is a source of great anxiety. They have been subsisting on her husband’s and son’s disability payments and are running out of money.

“This has completely ruined our lives,” she said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. There’s nothing.”

Watts is not alone in her desperation. According to the county’s housing authority, more than 300 Section 8 tenants lost their homes in the fire.

Complaints about landlords drastically raising rents have multiplied.

Though price gouging is illegal and Chico’s city council recently strengthened renter protections, real estate agents and house hunters alike said the practice has become commonplace in the rental market. One of Mayer’s employees at the housing authority who lost her home in the fire looked into renting a four-bedroom house for her family that was listed at $2,100. When she called, the landlord clarified — it was $2,100 per week.

Another unwelcome side effect of the devastation is already making its presence felt. Several evacuees said that real estate speculators have approached them with offers to buy the land under their incinerated homes.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has stepped in to move wildfire evacuees out of shelters and into temporary housing, such as hotels and trailers. Frank Mansell, a spokesman for the agency, said it has offered 3,800 households rental assistance certificates and is putting up 90 families in hotels.

Firefighters and recovery workers are moving into a newly built base camp at the county fairgrounds, Mansell said, part of a effort to free up hotel rooms for evacuees.

Mayer said he has been told to expect a delivery of about 2,000 FEMA trailers, though precisely when they will arrive and where they will be placed is still under discussion. Authorities have cautioned residents who lost their homes against moving trailers onto their properties, many of which are believed to contain toxic ash.

Faced with the loss of their homes and the worsening shortage of affordable housing, some fire evacuees are giving up on California.

Jessica Swisher, 26, and her husband Eric Busby, 38, had moved into the Butte Creek Mobile Home Park about four months before the fire. It had taken them two years to save enough money for a deposit and first month’s rent. When the blaze swept through the park, it caused their barbecue grill’s propane tank to explode and left their daughters’ bunk beds twisted and charred.

While Busby talks about his desire to help rebuild Paradise, the couple and their four young daughters, ages 7 months to 9 years, are preparing to leave. A donation of $5,000 enabled them to buy a deeply discounted and well-used RV. Once its brakes are repaired, they plan to leave the shelter where they have been staying and make their way to Las Vegas, where they have relatives and the hope of steady work.

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“There are so many people from Paradise that lost their homes that housing here is just nonexistent,” Swisher said. “I think this could be a clean start for us.”

Many evacuees said they feel paralyzed and are reluctant to make decisions about their future they might regret later.

For 18 years, Genesee Salamon and her husband owned a home in Paradise. Two weeks ago, it burned to the ground with her five dogs inside.

Unable to find a place to rent, the couple recently purchased an RV, buying themselves some time to stay in the area and map out new lives. Salamon is eager to go back to work as a counselor at a Chico charter school. She knows some people are already talking about rebuilding Paradise, but she’s not one of them.

“People are in shock — I’m still in shock — and I’m trying to be mindful of moving slowly and thoughtfully,” she said. “This is just such deep devastation.”

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