California fire victims struggle to find housing in pricey market

Updated November 4, 2017 - 11:20 pm

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Raj Sodhi, his wife, Lucia Cascio and their 11-year-old twins turned into nomads for more than three weeks after a wildfire gutted their California wine country home — living in a hotel room and the homes of a friend, a boss’s boss and then another friend.

“The camping trip from which you never come home,” Sodhi said at the latest home where his family stayed while trying to find a new rental in a region that had a housing shortage and some of the highest rents and home prices in the nation even before the fires.

The most destructive wildfires in California’s history killed 43 people and have left thousands of people in the fire zone north of San Francisco scrambling for shelter.

Some fire victims have doubled up in bedrooms or slept on living room floors at the homes of friends or family. Others have placed ads on Craigslist, seeking land where they could park a trailer temporarily or pitch a tent.

“Lost everything in fires,” one person posted. “Looking for a place to put a travel trailer for little while until I can get back on my feet.”

Many have struggled to find permanent or even temporary housing in a booming rental market that faced a shortage even before the blazes took out more than 6,000 homes.

“I heard of stories where people would show up to the open house and offer multiples of the rent,” Sodhi, 43, an engineer at a technology firm, said. “It’s not just expensive, but it’s also hard to get the expensive places.”

Sodhi and his family were staying last week with his wife’s friend and her two children in an ample split-level home in a tree-lined subdivision in Santa Rosa.

The bass Sodhi plays in a jazz group was on the living room floor, one of the few things he and the family grabbed as they escaped the flames. His son, Jaco, was sharing a room with the family’s son, while the family’s daughter had moved to the master bedroom and given her room to Sodhi’s daughter, Sofia.

The kids and a babysitter lay on the floor in a circle playing a board game in the den.

“I wish I didn’t have to burden her,” Cascio said about living at her friend’s house. She said everyone who has taken the family in has been extremely gracious, but she’s sensitive to the strain house guests can create.

Housing stock drops in Sonoma

The rental vacancy rate in Sonoma County before the fires was 3 percent and a mere 1 percent in Santa Rosa. Then the city lost an estimated 5 percent of its housing stock to the flames.

County officials do not have figures on how many people are in temporary housing and how many people have found long-term solutions.

But unlike in other disasters, few people have lingered in shelters — just 132 people in Sonoma County late last week, down from a peak of nearly 5,000 on October 10, according to county officials. The majority of those still in the shelters were previously homeless, said Red Cross spokeswoman Cynthia Shaw.

In contrast, a month after Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas, more than 1,300 people were living in shelters. Nearly 15,000 people remained in shelters six weeks after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in August 2005.

The hurricanes each displaced far more people than California’s recent wildfires.

Still, experts say the relatively smaller percentage of victims remaining in shelters may reflect the prosperity of the people living in the fire area on the northern edge of the booming San Francisco Bay Area, and the nature of the disaster.

Flood victims often have homes that are salvageable and stay in shelters at night, commuting to their homes until they have made them habitable enough to sleep in, Shaw said.

Shannon Van Zandt, a professor at Texas A&M University who has studied how communities recover after natural disasters, said the region where the fire struck is also relatively affluent — meaning people are more likely to have insurance and savings to pay for temporary housing.

“They also have greater social resources. They have friends with homes big enough to have an extra bedroom,” she added.

Officials taking action

Sonoma County supervisors voted last week to temporarily block new vacation rental permits and allow travel trailers and other recreational vehicles to function as homes on all residential lots outside fire-damaged sites without county approval.

They also approved the use of guest houses and pool houses as rental units for fire victims.

Those efforts and other housing solutions the county is pursuing may not be enough to keep some people from leaving the region, said Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission.

“People are going to go, ‘This is too hard. It’s too painful. I’m going to take my settlement and go to Tucson or something,’” she said.

Richard Konopelski, 56, lost his home in Santa Rosa and said his family’s search for a new rental home felt like “The Hunger Games” trilogy.

“We showed up at one open house, and there were probably 20 couples there looking at the same house,” he said.

New homes that came on the market after the fires had substantially higher rents, he said.

After two weeks of 12-hour days visiting leasing offices and filling out rental applications, Konopelski found a four-bedroom, three-bath home near Santa Rosa for $6,800 a month.

Sodhi also found a home that he planned to move into on Thursday.

The lease for the three-bedroom house is $4,500 a month, but he expected insurance to pick up the tab for two years while he rebuilds on the land where his home burned.

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