The Thomas Fire ripped through Ventura County, destroying over 1,000 structures in the process. Of those structures lost, over 500 homes in the city of Ventura, from single-family homes to apartments, were lost, displacing hundreds. Now, as recovery begins, officials are working overtime to give assistance to those in need, and to educate residents on their rights going forward.
On Wednesday, Dec. 27, the County of Ventura, in partnership with the city of Ventura, hosted an informational workshop on renter’s rights following a disaster.
“I think people don’t think too much about it until there’s a disaster or problem; then it becomes of primary importance,” said Tracy McAulay, management analyst with the community development branch of the County of Ventura. McAulay says that this particular workshop was filled to capacity, with questions coming from those who lost their homes to the fire, and from those who were temporarily displaced due to damage or air quality.
McAulay says that there has been a lot of concern from renters regarding the possibility of being evicted, or having their rent increased. To make matters worse, housing supply was already low prior to the fire.
“There have been reports of people going to an open house and it’d get bid up right then and there,” said McAulay. “The search for replacement housing and concerns related to finding something affordable that people can actually afford to pay for is a big concern. We already had a constricted supply and now it’s significantly more so, and we have a large number of people competing. There was a lot of anxiety and uncertainty in the room.”
For all of the reports of rent hikes, however, renters do have rights. Rate increase restrictions have been extended in the county through June of 2018. Landlords cannot increase rents by more than 10 percent of the pre-disaster cost. As for who is responsible for damage, and in particular, damage caused by smoke and ash, McAulay says that the county is working to determine responsibility.
“Our recommendation at this point without further direction I,s give your landlord a chance to resolve the situation, bring it up with a non-threatening kind of way and see if you can work together,” said McAulay.
The Red Cross says that the landlord is responsible for making necessary repairs to keep your home safe and livable, including providing hot and cold water, electricity and plumbing.
Meanwhile, the Thomas Fire’s damage extends beyond the physical as well, as employment is no longer a guarantee for those whose places of employment may have been damaged or destroyed.
Vista Del Mar, the 87-bed psychiatric hospital on Ventura Avenue, was razed by the Thomas Fire in the early morning hours of Tuesday, Dec. 5. The destruction of the facility not only put patients out of care, but employees out of a job.
The nonprofit Ventura County Community Development Corporation assisted one such employee, Maria, a mother of four, to claim mortgage funding through the Keep Your Home California program, a federally funded program designed to assist low- and moderate-income homeowners in keeping their homes after a disaster. Through the program, Unemployment Mortgage Assistance provides $54,000 to eligible unemployed homeowners, which can help homeowners make their payments for up to 18 months.
Ana Chavez, homeownership program coordinator with the corporation, says that five such former employees of Vista Del Mar are in the process of applying for mortgage assistance, and she says that at least five other families who lost a source of income due to the fires are working toward acquiring the funds as well.
Chavez says that getting the word out on these assistance programs is key.
“There are these people who really don’t know about the assistance programs, so that’s what we’re trying to do at the moment,” said Chavez, adding that she expects, in the next few weeks, more applications to be submitted due to closures of businesses and loss of income during the time period when much of Ventura and Ojai shut down due to air quality.
The issue of a lack of housing is of utmost concern, however, as prior to the Thomas Fire, the vacancy rate hovered between 2 percent and 3 percent, making it one of the lowest in the country.
The Ventura County Area Agency on Aging’s Homeshare Program has been in the process of matching homeowners with those in need of housing, at least short-term, until housing is available.
Homeowners with vacant bedrooms or homes to rent under short-term agreements are asked to contact the agency and to apply. Special consideration for families with pets is encouraged. Homeowners must go through a background check and application process, but the process is being fast-tracked in order to secure short-term housing options for affected families.
For more information, or to apply to become a Homeshare Provider, call 477-7324 or visit www.vcaaa.org. For more information on renters’ rights and more, visit www.housingrightscenter.org. More information on Keep Your Home California can be found by visiting www.vccdc.org.