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Recovering from an affordable housing wildfire

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Smoke rises over Journey’s End mobile home park in Santa Rosa on Monday as multiple fires break out across Sonoma, Napa and other North Bay counties. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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A week before the North Bay fires broke out, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission convened a blue-ribbon committee, named CASA, to identify “game-changing regional solutions to the Bay Area’s chronic housing affordability challenges.” At that Sept. 27 meeting, Santa Rosa council member Julie Combs spoke about development in the North Bay: “We’ve been told by our builders that even though our home prices are rising, more than 33 percent rises in rent, that they can do better cost per square foot versus rent per square foot in other areas…” In other words, the rents were just not high enough for developers to want to build.

The catastrophe that engulfed the North Bay in October changed all that. The fires destroyed 8,900 structures, killed 44 people and displaced about 100,000 people, many permanently. It destroyed entire neighborhoods in and around Santa Rosa, including 5  percent of the city’s entire housing stock. These fires and those now raging in Southern California remind us how vulnerable we will continue to be to climate-induced catastrophes.

Our hearts go out to those who lost their homes and family members. The fires affected entire communities, regardless of economic status, but had particularly dire impact on seniors and people with disabilities in the path of the fires, on working-class families who can no longer afford to return to their communities, and on immigrants fearful of accessing help due to their status. As winter approaches, we are faced not only with an unfolding environmental crisis of toxic building debris, but with a new wave of evictions and rent increases. Even those who were not directly affected by the fires are impacted, as landlords cash in to rent to the wealthier residents who lost their homes, sometimes raising rents by more than 30 percent, despite California laws prohibiting rent gouging.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR WHOM?

Disaster can create opportunities to rethink the future. The question always is: “Opportunities for whom?” Will investors win at the expense of regular people, rebuilding Coffey Park and places like the Journey’s End mobile home park as luxury housing? Or will this be an opportunity to rebuild in a more sustainable manner, at higher densities, and with guaranteed affordability for all the people who live and work in the North Bay?

The past teaches us that recovery looks very different depending on the socio-economic status of communities. After a few years of resolving insurance disputes following the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, the neighborhood was rebuilt. The 2008 mortgage crisis leaves us other lessons, in particular how a crisis can create a redistribution of wealth up to the rich, as institutional investors and cash buyers swooped in.

These fires have created a potential opportunity to rethink the suburbs: to require fire-resilient design and less toxic materials; to “assemble sites” into larger parcels for higher density apartments; to turn single-family zones into areas for townhouses, duplexes, or fourplexes; or even to entirely redesign street layouts.

The likely outcome is that lot lines and zoning will stay the same — or, if any of these innovative changes are instituted without protections and policies to guarantee affordability, they will result in further segregating the region.

Just this week, the Chronicle reported vacant sites in the destroyed Coffey Park are being marketed as “fantastic opportunities” in a “wonderful neighborhood,” selling to all cash offers far above asking. Now, in an echo of the language of Trumpian tax cuts, one of the proposals being entertained in the regional CASA committee is to declare a “Housing Emergency,” cutting all regulatory and economic barriers for 10 years in order to stimulate development. Like Trump’s tax cuts, with no guarantees that such measures will actually help those displaced, the effect will not be a “trickle-down” of benefits, but rather a redistribution of ownership to wealthy investors.

This is the time, in the aftermath of disaster, to rethink how the North Bay can develop in an equitable way that protects its diversity, rather than giving away its future and transforming old neighborhoods into new enclaves for the rich. We need immediate action to protect residents and preserve and expand affordability. Regional planning provides a clue for how we can get there, but first and foremost, it must center equity and the needs of those most impacted as its fundamental goal.

Peter Cohen and Fernando Martí are co-directors of San Francisco’s Council of Community Housing Organizations.

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