Squeezed out

Photo by Ken Smith

Esmeralda and Michael Johnson stand outside the home they’ve rented for the last five years, and may soon be forced to vacate.

Michael and Esmeralda Johnson considered themselves fortunate to have escaped the direct devastation of the Camp Fire, as the home they rent with their four children in west Chico was unaffected by flames or evacuation orders.

But on Nov. 11—just three days after the fire started—the Johnsons found out they could in fact lose their home as a result of the fire. That’s when their landlords called to inform them their home had burned and they’d decided to leave the area, with no intention of returning to rebuild. The Johnsons’ home was immediately put up for sale and they were served a 60-day notice to vacate.

The family’s story is, tragically, not unique. Social media sites have been flooded with stories of displaced renters as homeowners reclaim property to shelter themselves or their families, or to cash in on the meteoric rise in home values sparked by the loss of nearly 14,000 homes in a county already suffering a housing crisis.

“A lot of the fallout from turning housing into a commodity can be gross,” said Lauren Kennedy, a local realtor and executive director of the North Valley Housing Trust (NVHT), who’s been deeply involved with housing efforts since the fire. “We see the worst of it at a time like this, when there’s a pressing basic human need and people boil it down to dollars.”

To illustrate the scope of the impact, Kennedy offered numbers from earlier this week from Multiple Listings Service (MLS.com), a resource used by many realtors. There were 102 single family residences available in Chico, while Kennedy said there are usually over 300. The median price per square foot was $244, compared with $222 in the six months leading up to the fire. The median list price has risen from $345,000 to $400,000, and Kennedy said buyers are offering an average of 20 percent to 30 percent above that. She’s also seeing higher than normal asking prices in nearby communities like Oroville and Corning.

“The devastation of a whole town burning just spreads out, and there’s no way things end up normal or OK,” she said.

The Johnsons moved into the three-bedroom house on Fairgate Lane in August 2013, shortly after the couple married and Esmeralda and her daughter—now a senior at Core Butte Charter School—relocated to Chico from San Diego. Michael, a chief petty officer and drilling reservist in the Navy, settled in the North State in 2005 and runs a mobile computer tech-support service called MacPC 911. Esmeralda works at United Healthcare.

Also living in the home are Michael’s three children from a previous marriage: two young men who study at Butte College and an adult daughter with severe autism who receives services from Butte County Behavioral Health.

The Johnsons fear more than just losing their current home. With the lack of available rentals, they worry they’ll have to leave the area; Esmeralda’s job, Michael’s business and the kids’ education and health care needs are all at stake.

About 20 individuals and small groups had looked at the house as of last week, and Michael said the majority he’d met were displaced by the fire; a handful were real estate investors.

“One of the first to come was a young woman carrying a child in her arms; they’d been burned out,” Michael said. “People are in the position of having to displace another family to put a roof over [their] heads. It’s awful all around.”

Interviewed this week by phone, the homeowner—who asked not to be identified—said his exodus was spurred by the monumental task of rebuilding: “With 14,000 homes gone, it’s going to be very difficult to do anything,” he said, noting the indefinite amount of time before debris is cleared and rebuilding can start, and the availability of contractors once it begins.

“We lived there for 13 years and now it’s time to try to build our life, like we already did once.”

The Johnsons said they’ve appealed to city and county officials, to no avail. A call to the county District Attorney’s Office proved fruitless. They also filed a claim with FEMA, but were denied.

“Had our rental burned down, we’d qualify for assistance, but since this situation is different, we don’t,” Michael said.

They accepted a $250 gift card given to everyone who filed a claim. The only other offer came from the federal Small Business Administration, which informed Michael he might be able to get a new business loan if the family has to leave the area.

At this point, the Johnsons said they’re hoping that whoever buys the home will continue to rent to them.

Kennedy, of NVHT, has attended several meetings focused on fire relief, and said she’s asked city, county and federal officials directly about renters like the Johnsons being displaced. She said a FEMA representative told her to encourage people to file a FEMA claim, and to keep applying if they’re denied, and then to keep checking back for help.

Legal Services of Northern California is aware of the situation and offering help. Renters may have some recourse because leases must still be honored even if properties are sold. That doesn’t apply to the Johnsons, though, because they were renting month-to-month.

Kennedy said the only silver lining she sees is that U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development representatives have offered support toward new programs to benefit both those displaced by fire and the area’s pre-existing homeless community.

“Those types of programs could be great in the long-term,” she said, “but unfortunately, that doesn’t do much for people that need help now.”