Wildfires raise fear of a ‘mass exodus’ by residents unable to afford housing
By Angela Hart
The Sacramento Bee
17 October, 2017
Photo courtesy of The Sacramento Bee
On October 8, 2017, a series of wildfires erupted throughout Sonoma, Lake, Napa, Mendocino, Butte, and Solano counties. As of October 18, the wildfires have burned a collective total of 210,000 acres of land and required the efforts of nearly 10,000 firefighters, causing 22,000 people to be displaced from their homes and leading to 42 deaths. Beyond the safety of civilians and firefighting crews, the Northern California wildfires have also prompted concerns over the severe shortage of affordable housing in the North Bay.
“This area is middle-class,” Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said.“This is not rich folks, this is where people struggled to make their rent…a lot of plumbers, a lot of teachers. People who can barely meet their mortgage.”
The wildfires have created a dilemma for state and local officials: how to assemble sufficient state and federal assistance to prevent lower-income individuals, displaced by the fires, from fleeing Sonoma County for cheaper housing elsewhere. With many residents in the region spending at least 30-50 percent of their income on housing, California is on a fast-track to an “unprecedented, statewide housing crisis”.
Although government funding exists to aid in the rebuilding of communities after disasters, the funding prioritizes public services and infrastructure, leaving property owners and renters to rely only on insurance, individual donors, and private investors for aid.
According to Mary Comerio, Professor of the Graduate School and Professor Emerita of Architecture at the College of Environmental Design, agencies are often forced to “cobble together a mix of public and private funds to assist rebuilding efforts.”
“Government funding to assist with housing–which typically represents 50 percent of the value of any disaster loss–is very limited,” Comerio wrote in a 2014 disaster assessment for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, adding that state and federal resources “are insufficient to meet the needs in contemporary society.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is encouraging residents to apply for disaster assistance, which could help with rent, temporary shelter and rebuilding. However, elected officials fear that the scope of damage is greater than the available funding. As wildfires are a fundamental component of California’s climate, it is crucial that “the state find ways to prevent long-term displacement of lower-income people and minorities from their communities.”