Driven from California city by fire, kept out by gentrification?

PARADISE, California – As heavy equipment hauls out mangled bedsprings, tree trunks and charred fireplace bricks, evidence of rebirth is emerging in this town scorched seven months ago by the most destructive fire in state history.

Signs offering ‘Cash for your lot’ are tacked up on telephone poles; real estate agents and developers in shiny SUVs are riding across the torched earth; and the frames of houses are taking shape, more modern and fire resistant than the ones that preceded them.

“It’s surreal,” said Brian Voigt, a longtime real estate agent and Paradise resident, as he drove past a patch of freshly bulldozed red soil prepped for redevelopment. “It will be an amazing town in 10 years.”

But concerns that the ambitious vision for Paradise excludes the town’s lower-income residents has ignited debate in this economically diverse community. With California’s housing crisis already fueling demand, many worried that plans to upgrade housing and utilities here will alter the town’s character, ensuring that the Paradise that rises from the ashes will be unaffordable for some locals.

“If you check what happened after New Orleans, they got rid of all the poor people like me,” said Paradise resident John Gillander, 62, referring to the redevelopment of flooded communities after Hurricane Katrina. He successfully opposed several proposed changes to the building code in Paradise, including setting a minimum size for manufactured homes. “We were probably the last affordable community in California.”

ABOVE & BELOW: Tom Taylor walks around his property. The Camp Fire destroyed his home in Paradise, California; and a sign that reads ‘Cash for your Lot’ is seen along a road in Paradise, California

Laura Mangold poses for a portrait with her children outside her new home under construction in Paradise, California
Residents of Paradise, California, are selling their lots after a fire destroyed most of the town seven months ago

Town Council members say they plan to include low-income housing in the redevelopment. But some note that, in the aftermath of such a disaster, some gentrification is unavoidable. The old wooden shacks dating back to the town’s agricultural past cannot be replaced, they say, and wealthy people will be attracted to double or triple lots that command expansive views in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada now that so many trees have been cut down.

Melissa Schuster, who has served on the Town Council since 2016, said she recognizes that Paradise’s poorest residents may be among the least likely to return.

“It’s so hard for those that are living at the edge,” said Schuster, who bought a 17-acre lot next to hers, where she hopes to grow grapes and olives now that the tree canopy has been thinned by the fire.

“But it’s not something that Paradise is facing alone. Does anyone have the answer?”

The Camp Fire, which blew through this region of Northern California in November, killed at least 85 people and destroyed more than 90 per cent of the homes in Paradise. Much remains in flux, including the possibility of land being taken through eminent domain to widen evacuation routes. It’s also not clear when the water, contaminated by molten metal and plastics, will be potable again.

The fire primed the neighbourhood for gentrification, some say, describing neighbourhoods that were sullied by drug dealing, debris-strewn lots and disused cars.

“The fire kind of cleaned that out,” said Frank Lewis, a local developer whose company has come up with all-inclusive plans to help residents rebuild. “They’ve got a real chance to clean up their act.”

Officials have set in motion an intense planning process that aims to make the town into a model of modern fire resistance, with proposals that would mandate defensible spaces around houses and require that manufactured homes be no more than 10 years old.

Damaged Internet infrastructure will be replaced with state-of-the-art technology, and a long-wanted sewer system is in the works. PG&E, the utility whose equipment sparked the disaster, has announced plans to bury electrical lines in Paradise, making the area less susceptible to fires.

The improved Internet access “will allow telecommuters to work out of their homes,” said Councilman Steve Crowder, adding to the allure of small-town living here within reach of San Francisco and Tahoe.

The council is working with Urban Design Associates, the Pittsburgh-based firm that helped reconfigure New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to provide guidance on the town’s redevelopment and seek feedback from residents.

Barry Long, managing principal of Urban Design Associates, said that, while the firm is sensitive to the needs of low-income people, some challenges are insurmountable.

“We can’t build a home today for what it would have cost 40 or 60 years ago,” he said. “That’s just a reality.”

Almost 60 vacant lots in Paradise have sold since the fire, according to the Multiple Listings Service, which lists transactions handled by agents; an additional 68 are in escrow, and 193 are available on the market.

But many cash sales and neighbour-to-neighbour deals are not reflected there, Voigt said.

Luigi Balsamo, who owned rental property that burned down in the fire, said he has formed a company with other local investors that has bought 30 lots in the Camp Fire area, averaging about USD12,000 each. Some lots have sold for USD5,000 or less, Balsamo said, with some residents willing to almost give their land away in an effort to move on quickly from the hassles of rebuilding.

Balsamo, who said he wants to maintain the character of the town, said he’s also seen buyers from outside of the area – “hawkish people” looking to buy larger swaths of land.

“The area is looking to be gentrified,” he said. “It’s going to happen, because it’s California.”

Voigt said he is working with two investors – one local and one from Los Angeles – who are prepared to scoop up lots for USD20,000 to USD30,000 apiece, either to rebuild or to hold them long term.

But with many residents still deciding whether to come back to Paradise – only about 3,000 people, or 10 per cent of the prefire population, have returned – any developers with the resources to buy entire streets will have to wait, he said. – Photos and Text by The Washington Post