‘Everyone Has to Start Over’: NorCal Wildfire Survivors Now Face Crisis of Finding New Housing

Residents search for an engagement ring at a burned residence in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. (Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Residents search for an engagement ring at a burned residence in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. (Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Laurie Martinez has slept in a tent every night since a fire ripped through her neighborhood in Santa Rosa.

Residents search for an engagement ring at a burned residence in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. (Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Residents search for an engagement ring at a burned residence in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017.
Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. (Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

She walked several blocks to a local center on Wednesday to find out what help is available and began the process of piecing her life back together.

“Everyone has to start over,” she said.

She and her family were displaced by one of the massive Northern California fires last week.

The fire didn’t discriminate. The most destructive fire in California history torched Santa Rosa’s high-end homes, middle-class neighborhoods and a mobile home park. It left the entire spectrum of the city’s population in distress as homes and businesses went up in flames.

And because of the housing crunch gripping the San Francisco Bay Area, survivors of the fire are dealing with a different kind crisis: They have nowhere to go.

Housing was already scarce in Santa Rosa before the fire. Now, there’s even less.

Altogether, the fires killed 42 people and destroyed 8,400 structures, according to Cal Fire. The fires are almost contained, as of Friday.

While residents expressed gratitude for surviving the deadly blaze, nearly all have been dealing with daily uncertainty. Where do they go from here? Where are they going to sleep tonight?

Every day, Pauline Conway, a substitute teacher, tries to figure out if she can reserve one more night at a Santa Rosa hotel where she has stayed. She can’t book reservations beyond one night due to the demand for hotel rooms, and hasn’t found any open apartments.

“I’ve been going night-to-night, and it’s stressful,” said Conway on Wednesday.

She wore a look of fatigue, and a pair of denim shorts and zip-up jacket — the same clothes she had on when she fled her house more than a week ago. She held her cell phone in one hand and a clump of documents in the other as she bounced from call to call.

Conway’s house, which was in the Fountaingrove neighborhood, was destroyed. She hasn’t decided whether to rebuild her home, where she lived for 20 years. But since the night of the fire, she has slept on the floor of a sporting goods store, at a cousin’s house and in hotels.

Displaced residents are in shelters, mobile homes, staying with friends and family, or bouncing from one hotel to another, trying to figure out where they can stay after their homes were reduced to ash.

Some have gone to stay with family more than a hundred miles away. But many told CNN that they want to stay close to Santa Rosa. They’ve lost their homes, they don’t want to lose their jobs, too.

No housing means no place to put donations

Martinez, her three daughters and two grandchildren had lived in a two-bedroom apartment. The building didn’t burn down, but there was so much smoke damage, they can’t stay there, she said.

Her five family members now share a bedroom in a house about 20 miles away in the city of Monte Rio, but Martinez stayed behind in Santa Rosa, preferring to stay in a tent to avoid overcrowding. She set up the tent near a shelter, so she could wash and use the facilities.

“It’s been really humbling,” she said. “No one looks down at you. This is a resort area, a vintage town. Everybody didn’t want homeless people on the streets. Now people are homeless.”

A resident takes pause while searching through debris at his burned home in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. (Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

A resident takes pause while searching through debris at his burned home in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017.
(Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Martinez sleeps in the tent shared with her cousin and charges her phone in her daughter’s car during their visits.

After visiting the local assistance center, she received a list of low-income housing resources to call — a stack of paperwork stuffed inside a grocery bag. But she wasn’t confident she’d find a place for her and her family.

Their belongings, which were mostly in storage, were destroyed in the fire. Martinez said there have been generous offers of donated items and clothing, but they can’t accept them.

“There’s nowhere to put it,” she said. “There’s no storage. My family is living in one room.”

‘I don’t know where everyone’s going to go’

Santa Rosa, a mixed-income community is about 50 miles north of San Francisco. It was one of the last vestiges of affordable housing compared with the rest of the Bay Area.

The value of a typical Santa Rosa home was around $600,000, compared with San Francisco’s $1.2 million and Marin County’s $1 million, according to 2017 data from the National Association of Realtors.

Before the fires, the city had already been grappling with severe lack of housing and a 3% vacancy rate.

“The inventory was constrained prior to the fire,” said Rick Laws, senior vice president in Santa Rosa for Pacific Union International real estate agency. “Now, we have lost about 5% of the housing stock of Santa Rosa, so that’s huge.”

Homes that had once seemed undesirable have been snapped up.

“People are calling, asking ‘What have you got? I can buy it. I don’t care what it is,” Laws said.

One listing in Petaluma — a city 15 miles south — had previously rented for $4,000 a month and went for $13,000 to an insurance company. Another vacation rental also went to an insurance company for $18,000 a month, he said.

While homeowners with insurance can likely rebuild and stay in the neighborhood, it’s a tougher question for low-income residents.

“Low-income people are even more likely to be squeezed out,” said Sarah Karlinsky, senior policy adviser at SPUR, a public policy think tank that does urban planning in the Bay Area.

“Is rental housing going to be rebuilt? How affordable will it be? Those are big questions and without some thinking through, low-income people will be disproportionately affected.”

Housing experts agree: Costs will likely increase.

“We’re going to see inventory get really tight and prices go up. Not everyone can buy, and there were almost no rentals prior to this,” Laws said. “I don’t know where everyone’s going to go.”

Shelters still opened

Since evacuating on October 9, Lydia Delos Reyes and her son, Robert, have been staying in a Sonoma County shelter.

Shelters are gradually closing as more evacuation orders are lifted. There were 20-30 shelters during the peak of the fire, now the county is down to three. Staying there isn’t a tenable, long-term solution, but Delos Reyes is grateful for the shelters and the kind workers there.

She’s a retiree from Hewlett-Packard and had lived in her Santa Rosa house in Coffey Park for 26 years. She lives with her son and grandson.

She said they have to stay in the area because her grandson works locally. But so far, the only available apartments have been in San Francisco (50 miles away), Sacramento (95 miles away) and Bakersfield (300 miles away).

“We keep calling, but nothing is available. All residents are in the same situation. A lot of people need a place. They just said nothing’s available,” she said.

They’re working with their insurance company, but they have no leads for temporary housing.

“I can feel myself getting heavier and heavier,” Delos Reyes said, pointing to her heart. She paused for a moment, choking back emotions.

“Every afternoon, I remember my house. I love my neighbors. I love my area. This is my place forever.”

What help is available?

Homeowner insurance policies vary, but generally fire coverage could include the cost of rebuilding, interim housing and property damages. There are limits to how much personal property is covered though, said Linda Kornfeld, vice chair at Blank Rome’s insurance recovery practice.

The key is to file claims early, she said.

FEMA offers a maximum of $34,000 grant per individual to both renters and homeowners who’ve sustained damage during a disaster. The money can be used for temporary housing, lodging, emergency repairs, personal property loss, medical, dental and funeral expenses.

The agency has also started the process of gathering local resources to build lists of vacancies to help people who need temporary housing. But the options could be limited as housing was already scarce before the fire.

FEMA said it had its first meeting with state officials and affected communities to assess housing issues on Thursday. But Frank Mansell, spokesman for FEMA, cautioned that it was still early in the process.

“We sit down with the state and communities, discussing what the options are,” he said. “FEMA doesn’t come in and say, ‘This is your solution.'”

FEMA used mobile homes for people after the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, but such decisions regarding housing are made by the community, Mansell said.

Something beautiful born out of ashes

The question of where Michael Ruiz and his family would live also weighed heavily. They had lost their home and all their belongings.

His pregnant wife, Charity Ruiz, escaped from the flames — that overtook their Santa Rosa house — on a bicycle last week. She put her two daughters in a toddler trailer hitched to the bike and rode out of the flames to safety.

A week after her harrowing escape, she gave birth to their third child.

With a newborn and two toddlers, the couple were eager to find a place for their growing family that was close to the couple’s workplace, a church in Santa Rosa.

Like many, Michael Ruiz struggled to find anything available, but worked with a family friend who’s a real estate agent. They may have found a rental in Sebastopol, a city about five miles west of Santa Rosa, he said.

In a span of a week, they lost their home that was bought in March, escaped from their burning neighborhood and welcomed the birth of their son.

“In the midst of all the heartache, there’s incredible joy as well,” Ruiz said.

He said they named their newborn son Remington Phoenix, to symbolize that “something beautiful has been born out of the ashes.”