California’s newly homeless fire victims face the state’s severe housing shortage

Suzanne Kaksonen, an evacuee of the Camp Fire, and her cockatoo Buddy camp at a makeshift shelter outside a Walmart store in Chico, California, on November 14, 2018. Kaksonen lost her Paradise home in the blaze.

Thousands who lost their homes to the Camp Fire must contend with one of the tightest housing markets in the country.

The death toll from the Camp Fire in Northern California keeps climbing, with 63 deaths, and some 631 people missing as of Friday morning.

But this isn’t merely the deadliest wildfire in California history — it’s also the most destructive. Last week, the fire blazed through Paradise and surrounding towns in Butte County with thousands of residents, leaving little in its wake. Some 11,862 structures were destroyed, including 9,700 single-family homes and 118 multi-family buildings.

An ariel view of Paradise off of Clark Road on Nov. 15, 2018. The Camp Fire has burned more than 7,000 structures in Paradise.Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
An ariel view of Paradise off of Clark Road on November 15, 2018. The Camp Fire has burned more than 7,000 structures in Paradise.

Further south near Los Angeles, the Woolsey Fire has destroyed at least 35 homes. And in a cruel twist, all of these people whose homes burned down now have to confront California’s housing crisis. The state’s population is growing, but not enough new homes are being built to keep up. California now ranks 49th in the United States in housing units per capita. Seven of the 10 most expensive US real estate markets are California.

As Vox’s David Roberts explained, demand growing faster than supply has created a slow-moving economic disaster.

The town of Paradise in Butte County, California, home to 26,000 people, was almost completely wiped out in the Camp Fire and serves as a case in point.

Up in the hills among Gray pines, cottonwoods, and walnut trees, a town like Paradise was an oasis in the state’s punishing housing market. In Paradise, the median household income was $47,000, below the national median income of $61,000, but more than 70 percent of residents owned their homes. Many of the residents were retirees living on fixed incomes or young families in search of safe and affordable housing.

Now the people who fled their burning homes have evacuated to nearby cities like Chico. Officials say they don’t know for certain how many people are currently uprooted, as some have sheltered with relatives, some were able to return home, others are staying in shelters, while others still are living in makeshift refugee camps. However, they estimate that upward of 52,000 people were evacuated in response to the Camp Fire.

Right now, they all need food, shelter, and safety. Eventually, they’ll need new homes.

Michael Ramirez hugs his wife Charlie after they manage to recover her keepsake bracelet in the rubble of their destroyed home in Paradise, Calif., on November 15, 2018.Marcus Yam /Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Michael Ramirez hugs his wife Charlie after they manage to recover her keepsake bracelet in the rubble of their destroyed home in Paradise, California, on November 15, 2018.

But that’s going to be difficult in a region already facing a severe housing shortage. As Ed Mayer, the leader of Butte County’s housing authority told the Sacramento Bee, that prospect has put the county on edge:

The county has the capacity to place 800 to 1,000 households in permanent housing, Mayer said, but its short-term options are overwhelmed. Officials have offered no timetable for when residents will be allowed back to their homes, if they’re lucky enough to have a home still standing.

Housing was already scarce in Butte County before the Camp Fire. The housing vacancy rate was less than 2 percent, which “is considered a crisis state,” Mayer said. And unlike wealthier Sonoma County, where fires destroyed thousands of homes last year, many residents of Paradise don’t have the financial means to rebuild their homes quickly.

The effects of the Camp Fire will continue to linger long after the embers die down and the smoke blows away. The search for a long-term refuge will only add to the woes of evacuees, some of whom are living in makeshift campsites and others who are contending with norovirus outbreaks in shelters.

President Donald Trump has planned a visit to the region on Saturday. The president has authorized federal disaster money for the fires, but has also blamed the state of California for “gross mismanagement” of its land and threatened to withhold federal funds from the state.

California Gov. Jerry Brown countered that climate change was the bigger factor driving the massive blazes in the state this year. And some firefighters took offense to the president’s comments. “His comments are reckless and insulting to the firefighters and people being affected,” Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, told CNN.

A rescue worker lifts a cadaver dog over a section of roof that collapsed as she searches for human remains at a mobile home park that was destroyed by the Camp Fire on November 14, 2018 in Paradise, California.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A rescue worker lifts a cadaver dog over a section of roof that collapsed as she searches for human remains at a mobile home park that was destroyed by the Camp Fire on November 14, 2018 in Paradise, California.

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