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Wildfires Are Burning Housing Stock Northern California Can't Afford To Lose

As firefighters gain an upper hand in the massive firestorm in Wine Country, another battle looms. The loss of thousands of homes will deal a serious blow to a region that has struggled for decades with the housing supply/demand imbalance

The damage in a neighborhood in Santa Rosa as seen from a California National Guard helicopter

"We have zero ability currently to accommodate people displaced by disaster," Bay Area Council Senior Vice President of Public Policy Matt Regan said. 

The North Bay has lost 5,700 homes and businesses as of Saturday. Many of the losses have been in the Sonoma County city of Santa Rosa. The city has lost about 5%, or about 3,500 units from its housing stock of 70,000, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said during a Friday press conference. About 400K SF of commercial space also has been destroyed. Damages are well over $1B. 

The wildfire is shedding light on a much broader issue across the entire state. There just is not enough housing to meet demands and cities and counties are struggling to keep residents from being priced out.

"We don't have the capacity to absorb 5,000 families," Regan said.

The vacancy rate in Sonoma County in 2016 was about 2.3%, much lower than the state’s average of 3.3%, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. While rents are cheaper in Sonoma County compared to San Francisco, rents have been rising. Santa Rosa posted rental increases of 5.7% in August and rents average $1,824, according to data from RentCafé.

Much of the region’s vacancy can be attributed to home renovations where housing is temporarily unoccupied. This means housing availability is basically zero, Regan said. 

Rebuilding In A NIMBY Region

The North Bay is not known for advocating for housing. Marin County has been pushing for an exemption to state housing rules related to building dense affordable housing. From 2004 to 2014, Sonoma County issued 41% of the permits needed to meet its housing goals. Napa County issued 39% of the permits toward its goals set by the Regional Housing Needs Allocation. Sonoma and Napa counties currently have a total housing stock of 260,000 homes and apartments.

Political, structural and regulatory issues have long slowed the housing approval process throughout the Bay Area and California. The region needs to re-examine its priorities and new home construction and make it easier and quicker to build, Regan said. 

"We do have a housing crisis and we should declare a state of emergency and build in other places where we’re seeing widespread dislocation," he said.

A state of emergency declaration bypasses a lot of the laws and regulations that typically slow down construction, Regan said. For example, repairs at the Orville Dam are expected to be completed after 12 months of construction since a state of emergency allowed for a quicker pace.

Long Road To Rebuild Ahead

Members of the Military Police Company, California Army National Guard, prepare to assist evacuees at the Cavanagh Recreation Center in Petaluma, Calif.

The North Bay also will have the challenge of getting people to come back during or after the region’s recovery. Many people often have the intention of coming back and rebuilding, but may end up moving to other locations, Regan said.

"Emergency housing is critical," Regan said. "We just don’t have any."

Recent passage of legislation to allow for fast-tracked building of accessory dwelling units will help fire victims, but is not a solution for large displaced families, Regan said. Such units are typically big enough for an individual.

Granny units can be built much faster than new construction and do not have to go through CEQA or community hearings. Regan said if just 10% of the current houses built a granny unit, 150,000 units could be added to the Bay Area’s housing stock.

People lucky enough to have friends or family to live with could wait years for their houses to be rebuilt. Santa Rosa officials have said they will fast track the rebuilding process as much as possible, including speedier reviews for apartment owners. A shortage of materials as well as labor following the hurricane recovery in Texas and Florida will likely also make rebuilding challenging in California.

"There are no easy, quick fixes, unfortunately," Regan said.

This is not the last natural disaster the Bay Area will face. The magnitude of people displaced during an earthquake could dwarf the wildfire and result in mass dislocation, he said.

"We’re in a disaster-prone region. We’re going to see similar disasters, fires, floods or ... earthquakes," Regan said. "I hope people can use this as a sober warning that we are not prepared for a major natural disaster."