Demand outweighs supply

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

The Wright family—Rachiel, Brandon and 3-year-old Sam—say the search for a rental in Chico has been difficult. They’re on four wait lists and were approached by a scammer. For now, they’re couch-surfing.

Rachiel Wright and her husband, Brandon, bought their home in Paradise, off of Elliott Road, 8 1/2 years ago. They saw it as a smart investment. Wright works at Lulus—and says she’s grateful she still has a job—but Brandon recently went back to school for accounting, so he quit his job to concentrate on his studies. They’d been renovating a part of their house into a rental studio as a way to make ends meet while he finishes his degree, next semester at Chico State.

Now, she’s not sure what they will do. Based on maps of the burned areas as of Tuesday (Nov. 13), they were fairly certain they no longer had a home. Even if the property has been spared, they will need housing for the foreseeable future. So they’ve been calling rental companies and applying online in the hopes that something comes open.

“Our insurance company said they would provide us with what we had, which was a three-bed, two-bath, but I know there’s a shortage, so I’m willing to take anything,” Wright said. “I’m on at least four different wait lists. I’ve gotten to actually see one, but then, since I’ve seen it, I haven’t been able to talk to my insurance company to see if they’ll secure it for me, so I’m not sure if it’s even available anymore.”

The Wrights are not alone. The number of displaced residents, including temporary evacuees, exceeds 50,000. As of press time, it was unclear how many will require long-term placement. However, given the devastation on the Ridge, it’s safe to say tens of thousands.

To respond to the sudden demand, the North Valley Property Owners Association (NVPOA), an organization that provides supportive services to the rental industry, mobilized. It has more than 750 members who own or operate 23,000 rental homes in a 12-county region, from Sutter and Yuba to the south to Siskiyou and Shasta along Oregon’s border.

Executive Director Jennifer Morris said the association is doing everything it can to help “make a housing connection,” whether it’s short-term or long-term. That includes launching, a list of available vacancies throughout its network.

Unsurprisingly, because Chico is the largest municipality in Butte County—and ground zero for evacuees—its open housing stock is in high demand. Unfortunately, it was tight prior to the Camp Fire.

In October, the average vacancy rate was 3 percent for rentals in the Chico market, according to NVPOA numbers. Morris noted some caveats: The organization does not serve all of the county’s landlords, and recently constructed rentals in the south campus neighborhood had not been factored into the calculations.

Still, she stressed the dearth of available units.

Chico property owner Bill Sheridan echoed Morris.

“If this was [the Sacramento area], this would be like 200,000 people all of a sudden losing housing,” he said. “No city is equipped for a 10 percent immediate truncation of housing, because it never happens. … I don’t know where the hell these people are going to go.”

At the two apartment complexes Sheridan manages, there was one immediately available unit, and one will open in a month. Both are going to the families of two displaced subcontractors who take care of his properties, and he knows other property managers who are using the same approach.

“We’re basically taking care of our own …,” he said. “There’s really nothing else we can do.”

Ed Mayer, Butte County Housing Authority’s executive director, said he anticipates at least 10 percent to 15 percent of the housing stock of Butte County has been obliterated by the Camp Fire.

“It means in the short term, we find temporary shelter, people double up to stay here or we’re going to see a lot of folks leaving the county.”

The disaster, he noted, will make it particularly difficult for low-income residents to acquire housing. There are 420 Section 8 housing voucher holders who lived on the Ridge, and Mayer estimates at least 300 to 350 of them have lost their homes.

They’ll get vouchers, he said, but they’re unlikely to be able to find a way to use them or a place to stay.

“We have a lot of folks living very hand to mouth right now, a lot of folks who’ve lost everything,” he continued. “This is not just significant, this is major, not to be underestimated. This will play out for years here.”

Evan LeVang, executive director of the Disability Action Center, offered a similar bleak outlook. His organization focuses on people with disabilities, many of whom are on fixed incomes, and the list of available affordable, accessible housing has always been short.

“It was tough before this, and now there are going to be hundreds of people lining up,” he said. “We just don’t have the inventory.”

Looking at the bigger picture, LeVang says Butte County is going to need to think outside the box if it’s going to find room to accommodate those displaced. The community will also have to look inside itself to find compassion for those who already struggled and now have nothing.

“Hopefully there will be more empathy and commitment to addressing these housing needs,” he said. “Disability is often unexpected and your whole life changes. [With this], the whole community is going to get a better view of the hardship and struggles that the more marginalized communities have been dealing with for a long time.”

Morris cautioned people to watch out for price-gouging and scams. Both often target marginalized groups—as well as those in a state of distress.

California’s anti-price-gouging statute prohibits consumer goods and services from being raised more than 10 percent after an emergency has been declared, according to the Office of the Attorney General. Also, while these may be desperate times, people need to remain mindful about what information they give out.

“I know they’re in a really fragile state, and unfortunately, there are people out there that may take advantage of them,” Morris said. “If the rental sounds too good to be true, check it out.”

In fact, Rachiel Wright has been targeted—the second person to contact her regarding a place to rent turned out to be a scammer.

“I signed up on because I assumed they vetted their applicants,” she said. “This man sent me a letter, saying, ‘Me and my wife chose you, it’s by the grace of God. We’re in Arizona … if you FedEx us money, we’ll send [a key].’ I knew it sounded fishy … but for a minute I was considering sending the money.”

As soon as she told him that her insurance company would complete the process, communication ceased. She later confirmed he did not own the house in question. “I hope nobody else actually falls for that scam,” she said.