The Connection Between California Wildfires and the Housing Crisis

Eleven million people, around a quarter of California’s population, live in high-risk wildfire zones. Wildfires make the housing market even smaller and more expensive because of California’s lack of affordable housing. According to the research firm Headwaters Economics, more than 3,600 structures, including homes, burned in California wildfires during 2021, and between 2005 and 2020 nearly 60,000 structures were lost to fires in the state. Most people would assume that wildfires would decrease home value, but because of their location and scarce supply of homes, housing prices keep going up, which leads to more people at risk of experiencing homelessness. 

After the destruction caused by a wildfire, housing prices soar. According to data from real estate company Redfin, Napa County’s median home cost has risen almost 42% in the last 5 years, regardless of devastating yearly wildfires. Other fire risk areas like Sonoma County’s median home price have risen almost 60% in the same 5 years. Fires also have an effect on home costs outside of fire risk areas. In response to the wildfire destruction, housing prices and demand in cities like Berkeley increased between 2009 and 2019, based on a UC Berkeley study. Chief Economist on Redfin, Daryl Fairweather stated, “there aren’t enough houses for everybody who wants to buy them, especially in places like coastal California. That pushes people to buy inland in more fire-prone areas, even if that fire risk is increasing.” 

It is difficult to build homes in the city due to several barriers. Therefore, houses on California’s west coast have been pushed further into rural and forested areas where they are in the path of wildfires. Homebuilders find it easier to build in wildfire prone areas, which is affecting the housing crisis. These houses are cheaper than homes in the city and people seeking affordable housing may find these homes desirable. The state prohibits insurance from pulling coverage for homes in wildfire areas and it has been taking its time to build affordable housing in safer regions. 

Renters and those without property insurance are most at risk for losing their homes from a wildfire. People that make lower wages, seniors, minorities, immigrants, and people with disabilities do not have the resources to plan for such disasters when they are already struggling to pay for rent and feed their families. These people are left with no home after a wildfire, while the wealthy can handle the effects of climate change. Landlords can choose not to rebuild a rental after a wildfire, which leaves their renters rushing to find a new home after losing most of their belongings. Homes that are uninsured or underinsured can not afford to rebuild and are left with ashes. Even if homeowners are able to rebuild, it can take years for construction to be completed. These factors create thousands of Californians looking for homes in a congested market. Finding another rental home can be expensive and rents just keep going up, especially in communities after a wildfire. An average rental in Trinity County can go for $1,600 a month, which can be difficult to earn with a low wage job, social security or retirement alone. 

Depending on how big and destructive the wildfire is, federal help may be available for victims of wildfires. However, if it is declared a federal disaster, those without home insurance and renters only get a small amount of help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Uninsured homeowners whose properties are devastated from wildfires receive a maximum of $34,900, which is far from the amount of money you need to buy another home in California. If renters do not have any formal contracts or arrangements they might not receive any money at all, and undocumented individuals are unqualified for emergency benefits. According to Headwater Economics, federal government funding mostly helps with short-term fire suppression and clean ups. Half of all wildfire costs are produced by the local community through fundraising and donations. Sheri White, the executive director of a nonprofit organization in Weaverville, called Human Response Network, expressed, “it would be really helpful to get some federal funding to assist people in finding housing, assist people with some of the cleanup for their property so they can start the rebuilding process.” There is not enough housing to shelter California’s growing population of wildfire evacuees and not enough government assistance to help victims find permanent housing. 

Wildfires heighten the destruction from climate change, lack of affordable housing and the growing population of those experiencing homelessness, but there are some suggested solutions to this crisis. A couple solutions the government and communities are looking into is building fire resistant homes and creating a buffer between the homes and wildfire areas. Many may not be able to afford the cost of making their homes fire resistant, but politicians are trying to use government funding to have insurers offer discounts to those who spend money to make their homes more fire resistant. After being burned down in 2018 the town of Paradise is considering building buffer zones like soccer fields, a wetland habitat or other forms of parks to prevent wildfires and protect homes. Others believe that Californians should not live in fire prone areas at all, but moving everyone who lives there is impractical. According to Robert B. Olshansky, an expert in urban planning and lead author on a report by UC Berkeley Center for Community Innovation, California needs to invest to build affordable and dense housing in urban hubs. He also suggests using taxes to deter people from building or buying houses in fire susceptible areas. With a heat and drought affected state, wildfires are not going away anytime soon and policymakers need to put effective plans into action to solve the current housing crisis and protect houses from wildfires. 

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