By Kelly Wilson and Lindsay Nieman
"We lost over 300 acres of city land [to] the fire," Zac Moody, community development director of Talent, Oregon, reported in late September. "We only have 900 acres in our city."
He had just wrapped up a painstaking damage inventory after the Almeda Fire, which began on September 8 in Ashland before spreading to Talent, nearby Phoenix, and South Medford, killing at least four people and destroying more than 2,300 mobile homes, apartments, and single-family houses. Nearly 50 percent of Talent's students have lost their homes, Moody said.
Amid a relentless pandemic, communities across the U.S. have withstood an onslaught of destructive natural hazards. As of late September, wildfires killed at least 40 people and burned over 626,982 acres in Washington, one million acres in Oregon, and 3.6 million acres in California.
The Complex Fire alone destroyed 867,335 acres by the time it was 40 percent contained, securing its place as California's biggest blaze to date — and following a disturbing trend of consecutive fire seasons out-burning each other. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, six of the biggest 20 wildfires in state history have occurred this year (as of September).
Elsewhere, August's Hurricane Laura caused $10 billion in damage in Louisiana and Texas, while a derecho, or massive windstorm, ripped across 700 miles of the Midwest in two days, damaging or destroying more than 8,200 homes in Iowa alone.
Combined with rent and mortgage payments endangered by pandemic layoffs, the disasters of 2020 are hitting U.S. housing hard — and in many areas, affordability and shortage problems were already well underway. That's particularly true in the West. Almost a quarter of the country's unhoused population lives in California, 50 percent of Oregon renters pay 30 percent or more of their income on rent, and the entire West Coast has failed to produce enough housing to meet demand, California by more than three million units.
With the Centers for Disease Control's moratorium on evictions set to expire at year's end, and natural hazards increasing in frequency and intensity due to climate change, a mutated, magnified housing crisis is brewing — with no clear end in sight.
Fewer homes, higher prices
Three years ago, Pete Parkinson, AICP, lost his home in Sonoma County's Santa Rosa to the Nuns Fire. It killed 44 people and destroyed 91 other homes in his neighborhood alone.
Then came the Camp Fire. Only 13 months later, the historic wildfire tore through neighboring Butte County, killing at least 86 people. The largest decline in housing units followed for any county in the U.S. between 2018 and 2019: a loss of 13,865 homes, or 13.9 percent of its stock.
That kind of sudden devastation can displace tens of thousands at a time — during the Camp Fire, more than 50,000 were evacuated — forcing survivors into shelters, hotels, motels, RVs, and even tents and cars. Meant to be temporary, these solutions can end up being the only option for months or more as housing stock, particularly affordable options, is slowly recouped.
In Paradise, where the Camp Fire destroyed around 11,000 homes, only 11 had been rebuilt by the one-year anniversary. And just about half the homes lost to the Nuns Fire have been replaced or are being rebuilt today in Santa Rosa, estimates Parkinson, the former director of Sonoma County's planning department and former APA California chapter president.
This sudden, significant loss in housing hikes competition for anything left standing, increasing both costs and economic disparities. Between three and six months after the Camp Fire, prices for apartments and homes in Butte County jumped three percent; in Sonoma County, six percent.
That's a concerning trend anywhere, but especially in California, where eight cities and counties, including Sonoma, were already among the 10 least affordable in the U.S., says real estate firm Realty- Trac. Given the current economic environment brought on by the coronavirus, many survivors looking for housing may be unable to withstand even a small increase in expenses. And in some cases, those who owe back rent could still be on the hook, even if the unit in question is now uninhabitable.
Some might find no new shelter at all. When members of Houston's homeless population were interviewed a year after Hurricane Harvey, 18 percent attributed their unsheltered status to the storm.
Low-income residents and other marginalized people are always most at risk after a disaster, says Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy at the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. Those populations are "more likely to have fewer resources to sustain them during a disaster response and recovery, and they are least likely to be served by federal recovery programs," she says. "After Hurricane Harvey, around 45 percent of [aid] applicants with incomes below $15,000 were rejected."
(Re)building a new way forward
California isn't keeping up with housing production after wildfires, Parkinson says, but production could be bolstered by efforts like his local Renewable Enterprise District, a joint power arrangement between Santa Rosa and Sonoma County that takes a regional approach to housing planning, production, risk assessment, and financing. Parkinson sees this as a powerful tool in streamlining development processes so more housing can be built faster, before and after disasters.
In hazard-prone areas like the West and Gulf Coasts, a shift in how we recover, and where rebuilding occurs, is likely needed. Research on post-disaster experiences shows that a "return to normal" isn't practical or appropriate, says Mary C. Comerio, professor of the Graduate School at the University of California, Berkeley, and an internationally recognized expert on disaster resilience and recovery.
She points to government efforts that favor mitigation. "The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency is looking more at buyouts and relocation of whole communities in flood zones to avoid both repeated rebuilding and sea level rise," she says. Similarly, Parkinson gives a nod to critical wildland-urban interface building codes, which guide development in or near at-risk areas by advising on everything from the number of structures permitted to vegetation management.
"We really cannot get ahead of the losses from increasing disasters unless we think more about creating building codes and planning regulations that recognize the need to build better and safer in the first instance," says Comerio.
Kelly Wilson is APA's digital asset specialist. She produces Resilience Roundtable, APA's podcast series about planning's role in recovery and resilience. Lindsay Nieman is an associate editor of Planning magazine.