The Sonoma Complex Fires exacerbated an already dire housing crisis: On October 9, 2017, the most destructive wildfires in California history began in Napa County and quickly spread to Sonoma County and into the City of Santa Rosa. After burning for over three weeks, the fires ultimately destroyed 5,283 housing units countywide, and over 2,200 residential units and another approximate 1,000 residential accessory structures in the unincorporated County. The fires impacted thousands of community members, leaving many homeless, struggling to recover and rebuild.
Before the fires, many of those seeking new housing could neither find nor afford a decent place to live. The County already had very low vacancy rates—1.8% for rentals and 1% for homeowners. A housing market study released April 2018 using pre-fire data estimated that Sonoma County needed 14,634 affordable rental units to meet demand, that more than half of Sonoma County renters pay more than what is affordable for housing, and that nearly a third were “severely rent burdened,” meaning they paid more than 50% of their income on rent.
The 2018 Sonoma County Homeless Count included a survey of people who are unstably housed, and an estimated 10,741 people self-identified that they are now living doubled up, couch surfing, or with no formal lease. While many did directly lose their housing in the fires, this estimate includes those reporting they lost housing in the fires, were displaced due to the fires, or lost housing due to the economic impact of the fires.
After the fires the cost to buy a home in Sonoma County became increasingly out of reach for many potential homebuyers: the first quarter 2018 median home value was $681,333, up from $604,380 in the previous first quarter. Rents for surviving units rose substantially as the County experienced a simultaneous plunge in supply and influx of new demand as newly displaced residents scrambled to find vacant and affordable units. The fires displaced approximately 2,200 renters, but also created a secondary wave of displacement through disaster-related market pressures. According to the survey of people who are unstably housed completed as part of the 2018 Homeless Count, at least 2,363 people were secondarily displaced by the fires—either by owners returning to their rental properties when their home burned or because of rent increases since the fires. Of those who became unstably housed following the fires, 43% were over the age of 55. Of the 16,666 total FEMA registrants in Sonoma County, 4,786 or 29% were 65 or older. Many older people are on fixed incomes and will struggle financially rebuild their homes or to find housing again in the current rental market.
The housing shortage following the October 2017 fires also contributed to an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness. After seven years of declining homelessness, the 2018 Homeless Count showed that 161 more people were homeless than in 2017—a rise of 6%. This increase was seen in the few months after the fires and is likely to rise over the coming year.