Compounding the housing crunch

It isn’t like Northern California wasn’t already facing a housing shortage.

Just since October 8, fires have wiped out nearly 6,000 structures across the state—roughly half in Santa Rosa alone.

We don’t yet know exactly how many of those are homes, but it’s sure to be a major setback for the region’s housing needs. Between 2015 and 2016, the seven counties affected by the fires built just 2,000 new units. During the same period, rents have bound upward—by as much as 27 percent in Santa Rosa.

This week thousands of fire evacuees are discovering that they are now homeless. State Attorney General Becerra has warned landlords and hotel owners against profiteering off those who are most desperate, noting that it’s illegal to charge a price for an item that exceeds, by more than 10 percent, the price of that item before the declaration of a state or local emergency. This law applies to hotel accommodations and rental housing, but does nothing to replace the lost units. Until those are built, it is almost certain that many will not be able to compete for the available housing and will be forced to relocate out of the region or out of the state.

Now community leaders and state lawmakers will have to decide what the lesson there is to take from this tragedy. State law already requires homeowners who live in high fire risk areas to clear their property of flammable matter and build their houses with fire resistant materials. But these regulations are not always rigorously enforced, the building code requirements only apply to new structures, and many of the houses incinerated in this round of fires were not covered anyway.

Should these rules be expanded and strengthened? Should there be a reassessment of which communities should be considered “high fire hazard” zones? That’s a relative term in California. By one degree or another, we all live in wildfire country.