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After Wildfires, Housing Crisis Complicates California’s Rebuild

In a region that values open space, the idea of expanding the housing supply is a tough sell -- even after the disaster destroyed 5,000 homes.

California wildfires ashes homes
Thanks to a shortage of homes after last year's wildfires, Sonoma County's vacancy rate has essentially fallen to zero.
The wildfires that whipped through California’s wine country last year burned 150,000 acres. The damage was especially extensive in Sonoma County, where 6,500 structures were destroyed, including more than 5,000 residential units. Rebuilding will take years. The question facing public officials today is how fast they can speed things up.

The initial signs have not been promising. The labor market in the area is tight, so construction workers are not easy to find. In January, one of the major homebuilders in the area, a firm that was already doing big projects in Sonoma County, announced that it wouldn’t build anything in Coffey Park, a neighborhood in Santa Rosa reduced to ashes by the fire. There just weren’t enough workers available to make it financially feasible. 

And then there’s the Bay Area’s general aversion to density. Proposals to not only replace the units that were lost, but to build thousands of additional units needed to meet market demand, have been a tough sell, even in the crisis environment. “They’ve had no emergency upzoning,” says Laura Foote Clark, executive director of YIMBY Action, a San Francisco-based group that wants more housing. “There are homeowner associations that, as they’re rebuilding, are trying to figure out how to block accessory dwelling units, like granny flats.”

The result is that rental costs in Sonoma County have shot up as much as 30 percent since the fires. Homeowners can be made whole with insurance, but renters are largely out of luck. Even those living in homes that weren’t destroyed are getting kicked out, with their landlords saying they need the space for themselves. The county’s residential vacancy rate is 1.5 percent, which means there is effectively no housing available: That percentage just accounts for the time it takes renters to move out and be replaced. “The cost of housing has never been higher,” says Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. “Many people are petrified they will be evicted, because they don’t know where they would go.”

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County are doing what they can to alleviate the crunch. Both the city and county have added staff to their permitting departments. Sonoma County opened a one-stop facility in February for owners and builders to get their permits quickly. If they’re rebuilding on a property that already has driveways or septic tanks in place, that speeds things along. In general, permits for replacement properties are being issued in less than a week.

What about building additional units? The county’s housing authority has proposed allowing 30,000 new units in order to meet market demand. That number is likely too high to fly in a county that treasures its open space. But taking advantage of the tragedy to promote more building in areas that are fire- and climate-resistant and convenient to transit seems to be a goal that’s largely shared. “I definitely think there’s a sense of urgency,” says Felicity Gasser, policy and communications liaison for the Sonoma County Community Development Commission. “It seems that the community at large is willing to accept that there’s a housing crisis and that government intervention is needed to solve it. Fire brings attention to that.” 

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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