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How Northern California's destructive wildfires could exacerbate the state's housing crisis

Liam Dillon, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Home and Consumer News

PARADISE, Calif. -- Northern California's recent wildfires have burned homes at a greater pace than developers are building them, deepening a housing shortage that already has left millions struggling to find affordable places to live.

Five large wildfires over the past 14 months, with November's Camp fire the most devastating, have destroyed nearly 21,000 homes across six counties. That total is equivalent to more than 85 percent of all the new housing built in those counties over the past decade, according to Construction Industry Research Board building permit statistics.

"We had a housing crisis prior to the fires," said Bob Raymer, a senior engineer with the California Building Industry Assn. "This only exacerbated the crisis. I can't even put a measure on it. Just wow."

'Where do people go?': Camp fire makes California's housing crisis worse »

The devastation from the fires will be felt in the state's housing market, state officials, academics and other experts said. Rebuilding in affected areas will depend on the pace of debris removal, the ability of property owners to secure payment from their insurance companies, the availability of construction workers and raw materials and a host of other factors. Such efforts could compete with housing and other development in the region, driving up the cost of building and slowing production in other parts of Northern California.

Those effects are likely to worsen housing affordability, said Ben Metcalf, director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development. And the state will face greater challenges if wildfires or other natural disasters continue to wipe out homes in the coming years, he said.

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"It puts even more pressure on us to come up with creative solutions to our housing supply problems," Metcalf said.

Nearly 14,000 homes burned in the Camp fire alone, among them three dozen low-income apartments in Paradise Community Village. All that remains of the complex is burned-out stoves and sinks, blackened tree trunks and the husk of a jungle gym.

The destruction left former residents scrambling. Some stayed with nearby family members and others scattered to the Bay Area, Oregon and even the Midwest.

After struggling to find affordable housing, Nancy Tucker Rich, 64, was one of the first to move into the apartment complex when it opened five years ago. When the fire struck, she stayed with her daughter for eight days before renting a room with a separate entrance in a single-family home in Oroville, about 20 miles from Paradise.

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