California Wildfires Further Burden The State's Housing Crisis

Oct 18, 2017
Originally published on October 18, 2017 8:10 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's report on a side effect of California's fires. The state was already experiencing a housing shortage, really high housing prices. And now several thousand people who lost their homes in northern California face uncertainty about where they're going to live. From Santa Rosa, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: As several fast-moving wildfires raced across California's wine country last week, tens of thousands of people fled their homes. Many stayed in hotels or in Red Cross shelters, while others slept in their cars or crashed on couches with relatives or friends. For Linda' Schiltgen, her husband and two girls, it's...

LINDA SCHILTGEN: ...At a friend's house on a floor.

SCHAPER: And after several days of staying with that good friend, Schiltgen expects that in the next day or two the evacuation order for her neighborhood will be lifted.

SCHILTGEN: And we have a home to go back to. My mom does not.

SCHAPER: Her mother has been staying with other relatives. But where she'll end up living long term is unclear.

SCHILTGEN: You know, a week ago, losing your house was tragic. And now it's lucky because she's alive.

SCHAPER: Douglas Braly feels fortunate to have escaped the fires, too. But his Santa Rosa home...

DOUGLAS BRALY: ...Nothing left. The house is flat. There's nothing there.

SCHAPER: For now the 53-year-old and his wife and 22-year-old son are living in a motor home on the land around his in-laws' house.

BRALY: Two of her brothers lost their home as well. So there's a whole bunch of us there at the five acres. We're calling it the family compound and making the best out of it.

SCHAPER: Braly says the motorhome was already feeling a little cramped. And he's beginning to realize he might be camped out there for a while.

BRALY: Well, with the rental market the way it is right now because we don't have a lot of rentals to begin with and everybody and the brother out there, we're trying to find a rental. But if we don't find one, we might be there for two, three years till we finish rebuilding.

SCHAPER: Homeowners insurance often covers rental housing. And for those who are on or underinsured, FEMA provides temporary housing assistance. But that tight rental market was a big problem even before the fires, as Sonoma County has a huge housing shortage.

JAMES GORE: Well, we have less than 1 percent vacancy.

SCHAPER: James Gore is a Sonoma County supervisor. And he estimates at least 6,000 families in the county lost their homes to the fires.

GORE: We're not talking about houses that are for vacation rentals. We're talking primarily core workforce housing - teachers, plumbers, electricians, you know, people who work every day and have to make ends meet.

SCHAPER: Gore says already the community is getting creative. There's a share program in which residents are offering up spare rooms. And the county may give incentives to open up vacation rentals to displaced residents. But he says there is no question about the need to build new affordable housing fast. David Schaper, NPR News, Santa Rosa, Calif.

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