Housing supply low, rents high as wildfire crisis crushes the poor

Low income families, hardest hit by fires
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At 9 p.m., Mr. Cruz said his cat was acting strangely. He opened the door of his home in Glen Ellen, but Missy would not walk out. Four hours later, a friend phoned him to warn him about the fires. When he opened the door at 1 a.m., the flames were fast approaching his trailer.

The story is one we have heard from people across Northern California, who say they scrambled to see what they could save in the little time that was left. 

“I told my wife to get the baby,” then his wife with the baby, his teenage daughters Mia, 13, and Maya, 11, jumped into their two cars and drove off to safety. 

Mia said in the rush of saving themselves, they couldn’t find Missy, the cat the family had adopted last year on her 12th birthday. They left Missy behind. The fire destroyed everything they owned, including the girls’ school laptops, all of their clothing and the RV they called home. 

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Most people who lose their homes go to their insurance, those who don’t have insurance go to FEMA – where they can receive up to $34,000 – but those who have no documents or legal status in the country just don’t know where to go. 

La Luz Center provides the non-English speaking community in Sonoma Valley a range of resources. They served food to evacuees and people who were displaced during the wildfires. Marcello Defreitas, the president of the board at La Luz, said they have been collecting funds, donations and gift cards to help replace wages of people who lost work through the fire. 

I didn’t ask the Cruz family about their status, neither does the team at La Luz. Marcello helped the family find a place to stay for a few months while they get back on their feet. The home is somebody’s vacation home, so they will have to find a permanent home before next summer.   

When they do, they might be looking for a home in a market where rents will be unaffordable to them. Juan Hernandez, the Executive Director at La Luz, explained the geographic isolation, the local resistance to development and the protection of scenic views and landscapes makes Sonoma one of the tightest markets feeling the effects of California’s housing crisis. 

“Before the fires happened, landlords had been anxious trying to get low-income renters out,” said Hernandez, in order to raise their rents and get higher-paying tenants.

Now, when places like Santa Rosa, with a rental vacancy under two percent before the fires, lost five percent of its housing supply, low-income residents will be pushed out. 

“The fires really affected people up in the hills, so people who may have been able to afford these houses in the hills, now they need somewhere to stay, too," said Hernandez. "Now, these people who lost their homes are competing with the vineyard worker or hospitality worker who maybe has also lost their job. So, now you have people in the higher income bracket and at the lower income bracket having the same effect of the fires -- competing for the one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartment.” 

He fears now when workers can't make their rent due to lost days or weeks of work, that could give their landlords an excuse to kick them out and offer the place to higher-paying tenants.

The Cruz family is optimistic. They say, even if they have to leave Sonoma, they are happy they will do so with their family complete. 

Two weeks after they left their home, when authorities finally allowed them to return to the scene, they went home. It was Mia’s 13th birthday, and all she wanted was to find her cat. Missy was hiding in a basement with her paws a bit burnt, but healthy and even a little fat.