Through the cracks

Affordable housing is the solution for those living on the edge post-Camp Fire

As unbelievable as it may seem, though it’s been 16 months since the Camp Fire, there are people who lost housing and are still living in tents. They’re tucked into private properties off the beaten track. Some are in cars, and move from place to place, as to not draw attention to themselves. Others are holed up in dilapidated RVs lacking proper electricity and sanitation.

The situation reveals a major disconnect in the post-disaster landscape: Much of Butte County has moved into a recovery phase at the same time that thousands remain stuck in relief mode, struggling like hell to simply have a roof over their heads and meet basic needs.

Many were living hand-to-mouth prior to the fire—just able to afford an apartment or mobile home, for example. Some the CN&R has met lived with family or friends. They may not have been thriving in the way that most of us would define that word, but they were getting by.

Life is so much more precarious now. RVs aren’t meant to be permanent dwellings, and that goes doubly for tents and vehicles, which expose occupants to extreme heat and cold.

The CN&R’s Ashiah Scharaga spoke to a few of them and several recovery experts for this week’s excellent cover story that lays bare the extent of the issue. Thanks to data from the Magalia Community Church, which runs a vital relief center, we know how many people visit and their living situation. We’re talking about hundreds per day, but it’s important to bear in mind that the house of worship doesn’t see everyone who’s living on the edge—just those seeking resources there.

Another data set indicating how bad things are is the demand for disaster case managers—nearly 3,000 people are on a waitlist. That is, one and a quarter years after the fire, a population about as large as the town of Paradise is today hasn’t consulted with the professionals charged with helping survivors get back on their feet.

These are people who in many cases don’t qualify for disaster aid, including short-term housing through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They have slipped through the cracks.

Indeed, they’re surviving thanks to stop-gap measures—for housing, food and other needs—often in place thanks only to private helper groups or donations from big-hearted individuals. I shudder to think about what would happen if the Magalia Community Church had to close up shop. It would be devastating.

At the same time, I wonder how long the church will be able to sustain its efforts.

What’s missing are the long-term solutions to help this population stabilize. One of the biggest barriers, of course, is this region’s lack of affordable housing. Approximately 14,000 homes were destroyed by the fire, and many of them were mobile homes and other units with modest rents. Eventually, $1 billion in Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds will be allocated to regions of the state affected by wildfires in 2018. The big questions are how that money will be allocated among the affected counties and for what projects.

I suspect pet projects, including those to spur economic development, will be floated. Simply put, government officials must prioritize affordable housing. Doing anything else is irresponsible given what we know.