California Already Has a Housing Crisis. The Fires Just Made It Worse.

California is on fire. Again. The state’s 2018 wildfire season has been devastating, and it’s not over yet. The dramatic Woolsey and Hill fires scorching the hills around Los Angeles are still being brought under control, and first responders are battling the Camp Fire in Butte County, which has killed at least 56 people and torn through 140,000 acres and more than 10,000 structures.

Recovery from wildfires can take years, and for affected communities, one aspect is especially pressing: Housing. California’s housing prices are infamously high, and in Butte County, this problem is particularly bad. With 19.5 percent of the county living below the poverty line, explains Ed Mayer, Executive Director of the Housing Authority of the County of Butte, many households are heavily rent-burdened.

Five of his 36 staffers from around Butte County lost their homes in the blaze and many others are housing friends and family left houseless by the fire. The Camp Fire was most devastating in Paradise, where 95 percent of the city’s residential and commercial buildings are gone, says Mayer. The county as a whole lost a staggering 10 percent of its housing stock in the Camp Fire.

“Prior to the crisis, we had a vacancy rate of maybe 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent,” he says, estimating that Butte had approximately 1,000 units available around the county before the fire. That’s far short of the 6,000 households, including some receiving housing assistance, that will be looking for new homes after theirs were destroyed. Evacuees from Paradise are predominantly low-income elders and disabled people who settled there for a unique combination of affordable housing (by California standards) and access to medical services, he explains, a situation they may struggle to find elsewhere in the state.

He fears low-income residents may leave the state altogether, while…

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