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California Fires Leave Many Homeless Where Housing Was Already Scarce

People who lost homes in the California wildfires lined up on Sunday outside an emergency assistance center set up at the Press Democrat building in Santa Rosa, Calif. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Nathalie and Michael Internicola had about 15 minutes to grab what they could as the flames roared toward their house, and it wasn’t much: Some clothes, passports, their phones. They are grateful to be alive, they said, but as for what comes next and how and where they might rebuild their lives, they don’t have a clue.

“We’re staying with friends as long as they will have us; then we don’t know,” said Ms. Internicola, 51, whose home in Santa Rosa burned to the ground, along with about 60 others in their neighborhood. “We are desperately looking for a house we can rent, but there’s just nothing available, because there are so many people displaced.”

Though some of the fires in Northern California, the deadliest on record in the state, had been partly contained by Sunday afternoon, others were still raging. At least 35 people have died, and the count is likely to rise as the search for victims continues.

But for people like the Internicolas who escaped in time but lost their homes, the journey is just beginning. And the daunting implications of starting over, multiplied by thousands, are rippling through the state. About 100,000 people have been evacuated from fire zones, and some 5,700 houses and buildings have been destroyed.

Some displaced people likened their path to a gauntlet of fresh blows: real estate prices and rents that were already sky-high before the fires, the complexities of California’s housing, zoning and building regulations, and the environmental problems involved in cleaning up home sites made toxic by the ash from the fire.

Improvisation is the order of the day. Ron Gove called his accountant after his house in Santa Rosa burned down, hoping she would have documents and backup paperwork for his home-based business. She immediately insisted that he move into her guest bedroom, where he has now been staying for a week.

Some people are staying in motels or bunking with friends. Evelyn Gibson, 73, has moved in with her boyfriend. Some people have gone as far as Oakland or San Francisco, upward of 70 miles from Santa Rosa, in search of a place to sleep and a refuge from the fire’s new reality.

Matt Park, a child psychologist at Hidden Valley Elementary School, which was affected by a wildfire, consoled his son Henry, 5, on Sunday at a donation center in Santa Rosa, Calif. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

“It reaches to every aspect of this community’s life,” said Matt Park, a school psychologist who lost his house in Santa Rosa. He said about half the children in his daughter’s kindergarten class were now homeless as well.

For almost everyone, the retelling starts with the frantic minutes, often with flames visible from the front door, as they piled a few possessions, randomly or not, into a vehicle and fled. Some now shake their heads at the things they thought to grab in the chaos and trauma: a basketful of clean folded clothes just out of the dryer, a book taken from a shelf on the way to the door.

John Page pulled two drawers of family mementos from a bureau and made a cache in his backyard as the wildfire closed in. The trove, he said, was the stuff of deep meaning but little financial value: some old watches and neckties, his children’s baby teeth, his brother’s military burial flag. He covered the box of mementos with water-drenched bedding and blankets, made a kind of tepee over it out of three wheelbarrows, and then fled for his life.

John Page, 65, tried to safely stash two bureau drawers full of family mementos before he fled his house in the Fountain Grove neighborhood of Santa Rosa. The house was destroyed by fire, but the mementos survived and were returned to him by a police officer. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

The house was completely destroyed, and Mr. Page, 65, is staying in his deceased parents’ home for the time being. A few days ago, a deputy sheriff who’d heard his story rang the doorbell with a box in his arms.

“It was all there,” Mr. Page said, choking up. “I couldn’t believe it.”

California already had a housing crisis long before the fires started. With strict environmental rules and local politics that can discourage new housing development, the state’s pace of new construction has fallen far short of the state’s population growth.

In the five-year period ending in 2014, California added 544,000 households, but only 467,000 housing units, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, and the deficit is only expected to grow over the next decade. Napa and Sonoma Counties, where the fires did some of the most extensive damage, are among the furthest behind, building less than half the number of units in recent years that the state reckons were needed to keep up with the population.

Napa and Sonoma present a kind of worst-of-both-worlds scenario, according to Issi Romem, chief economist at BuildZoom, a San Francisco company that helps homeowners find contractors.

Those two counties are close enough to San Francisco and Silicon Valley that they have been affected by the heavy demand and soaring prices that have made housing unaffordable for many people in the Bay Area’s dense urban job centers, Mr. Romem said. At the same time, they are far enough away from cities that residents are still fiercely protective of their rural atmosphere and ethos, and they often resist development.

“Rebuilding is going to be tough unless some kind of streamlining is made,” he said.

The ruins of Amanda Welch’s burned house were shown in a photo displayed on her phone. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

The question of how to speed up housing construction figured prominently in the state legislature’s most recent session. Gov. Jerry Brown signed 15 bills meant to ease the effects of local regulations and raise money for subsidized lower-income housing.

“It needs to be as easy as possible for people to rebuild,” said Scott Wiener, a state senator from San Francisco. “We have a severe housing shortage as it is, and we don’t want to make it worse.”

Outside a multiagency assistance center that opened in Santa Rosa this weekend, Tom Gerstel, a disaster support worker, addressed a line of people who had been assembling for more than an hour before the doors opened on Sunday morning. In the center’s first day of operation on Saturday, 387 people came through its doors, all of whom had lost their homes and most of whom had also lost the paper trail of their lives: deeds and marriage licenses, tax files and social security cards.

“Some folks have lost everything, others partial,” Mr. Gerstel said to the line of people, some of them wearing masks over their noses and mouths as ash fluttered down from a sunny sky. He told them that they could expect a kind of triage inside, with help in applying for federal aid, and getting a new driver’s license, but that the priority was housing: “A safe, secure place to sleep tonight, and food — that’s going to be tended to as a priority,” he said.

Some who lost their homes said that the fires had shifted the priorities of their lives, and that possessions and nice houses no longer seemed so important.

Dennis and Kathy Shanklin, who lost all their belongings, at a friend’s house in Santa Rosa on Sunday. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

Kathy and Dennis Shanklin lost everything but their dogs and the clothes they were wearing, after they stripped off their pajamas and fled in the middle of the night. They sneaked back through the still-closed roads a few days ago to look at the ashes of their old lives.

“I started to cry, and then it just felt like, ‘It’s not worth crying about,’” said Ms. Shanklin, 67, a schoolteacher, describing her feelings as she stood there looking at what had been. “You’ve just got to put one foot in front of the other,” she said.

Susan Gibson saved her cats and some cat food, a purse and couple of changes of clothes, but lost everything else when her house burned to ash. The psychological shock waves hit when she looked at a rental she hoped to live in for two years or more, the time she thinks it could take to rebuild. The place was lovely, she said, down a winding road in the woods, But she walked away, the caustic memories of fire and flight too fresh and raw. She knew she wouldn’t be comfortable there.

“The escape route was a concern,” she said. “On the night of the fire, I sat in stopped traffic — we all did. It took about half an hour to go a quarter-mile, and the fire was bearing down on us. So now I’m conscious of it.”

Many people who lost homes said the outpouring of donations and outreach from friends had changed them, too, in positive ways — in seeing new connections and reasons for hope.

“Gratitude,” said Ms. Shanklin, the schoolteacher, “is a big word in my vocabulary now.”

Source”: New York Times

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