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California housing shortage adds stress for now-homeless fire victims

Nearly two weeks since the deadly wildfires in Northern California broke out, evacuees are making their way back to find that thousands of homes have been destroyed. But the housing shortage in the region that predated the wildfires is making it difficult for residents to overcome this natural disaster. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It's been nearly two weeks since deadly wildfires broke out in Northern California. At least 42 people have died.

    Fire officials hope to fully contain the most destructive fires by early next week. Thousands of homes have been destroyed.

    For many returning residents, there's the question of where to relocate or rebuild in one of the country's most expensive housing markets.

    Special correspondent Cat Wise has our report from Sonoma County.

  • Cat Wise:

    For the second time in the past 12 days, Santa Rosa construction worker Agustin Aguilera and his family have had to move, with the few possessions they still have.

    Several groups of friends have been sheltering the family since their small rental unit went up in flames, one of more than 8,000 homes and structures around California's Wine Country destroyed in the recent wildfires.

    Aguilera, who has not had work or a paycheck since the fires started, says it was tough to find a place to live in his $1,500 price range before. Now he's worried he won't be able to compete in the new, more competitive rental market.

  • Agustin Aguilera:

    I think there's going to be a shortage in housing, because, I mean, there are thousands of people there that got affected by these fires. They were pretty high prices before the fires, and I think this is going to be even worse. As of right now, I don't know what am I going to do.

  • Cat Wise:

    The Aguilera family's struggles to find housing in the wake of the fires is a common story now throughout the region.

    Here in Santa Rosa, the housing market, like in so many other Bay Area communities, was hot before the fires. Rental vacancy rates hovered around 1 percent and housing prices have been rising rapidly.

    The wildfires destroyed a wide spectrum of the city's housing inventory, from low-income mobile home parks, to middle-class ranches in Coffey Park, to multimillion-dollar mansions in the Fountain Grove neighborhood.

    One industry that's been impacted up and down the economic ladder is health care. At the Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, and affiliated clinics run by Saint Joseph Health, 152 staff lost their homes, including more than 50 physicians.

  • Todd Salnas:

    I'm spending as much time on housing, on housing issues for our community as I am in just dealing with kind of day-to-day hospital environment issues.

  • Cat Wise:

    Todd Salnas is president of the hospital. He and his family have been staying with his dad since they lost their Fountain Grove home, but he says he hasn't had much time to think about his own situation because he's been so focused on helping his staff.

  • Todd Salnas:

    It's really hard to ask people to be what they need to be in a very stressful, highly-driven health care environment, and not have their families settled. So we're trying to work very hard to get people settled immediately, right now..

  • Woman:

    One-bedroom apartment, it's downtown, very close to the hospital.

  • Cat Wise:

    Soon after the fires began, the hospital established this housing command center, where teams are trying to connect displaced staff with temporary housing.

    And nearby medical offices are being turned into small apartments. So far, about 30 employees have been placed, but Salnas says he's already thinking about their long-term needs and the community's.

  • Todd Salnas:

    One thing is providing this immediate short-term need, right? We have found a hotel for you for tonight, for the next week.

    But once that wears off, having the capacity to serve the community, and recruit and retain our medical community, which largely was wiped out in some of these — in these fires, is a major issue.

  • Cat Wise:

    How the rebuilding effort will proceed is now on the minds of many.

  • Steve Krieg:

    This is not something that can be rushed. This is going to be a long process.

  • Cat Wise:

    Steve Krieg has been a local farmers insurance agent for 30 years. More than 100 of his clients have lost homes. He believes most homeowners in the region had fire insurance, although policies and coverage varied.

    But the costs of rebuilding for homeowners and insurance companies are a big unknown at this point.

  • Steve Krieg:

    The city and county are already putting out guidelines of what they're going to do. We're hearing that they are going to waive fees for permits, but we're also finding that any rebuild is going to have to be to current code. That means a lot of homes are going to have a lot of changes.

    And we don't know if the policies are going to have enough coverage to cover that. Are building costs going to skyrocket because of the shortage of materials? We don't know. From what we heard, a lot of our materials just went to Houston to take care of the issues that they just had with their weather calamity. We need those materials back now.

    I have also heard that mills are running around the clock up north of us, so they're trying to get out as much lumber as they can. Is it going to be enough? We don't know, because we have never had this many homes at one time.

  • Cat Wise:

    Some in the community are hoping the city will use the rebuilding process to address some longstanding housing issues.

  • Omar Medina:

    The people that are most likely to get pushed out are low-income, people of color.

  • Cat Wise:

    Omar Medina is with the North Bay Organizing Project, a housing and community advocacy nonprofit.

  • Omar Medina:

    I think that the most critical thing that our community and our elected officials can do is really think about, not only increasing the housing stock, but making sure that there's affordable housing, and a significant amount of it.

  • Cat Wise:

    For construction worker Agustin Aguilera, the promise of more work in the coming months is not easing his housing concerns.

  • Agustin Aguilera:

    I'm afraid that the wages are not going to go as high as the expenses or the living in the area. Unfortunately, if we cannot find an affordable place to live, we're probably going to have to relocate. I'm sad because I don't want to move from here. I don't want to relocate.

  • Cat Wise:

    So far, more than 10,000 households impacted by the fires have registered with FEMA, and local officials are now considering a range of options for increasing short-term housing and expediting the rebuilding process.

    But it is expected to be years, not months, before the community recovers.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Cat Wise in Santa Rosa, California.

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