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The disaster’s second wave: Renters face housing aftershocks following floods and fires

An influx of desperate home seekers overwhelms the housing stock in small cities, experts say, leaving renters in the lurch.
Photo illustration: Image of a burning house over an image of houses submerged in water along and piece of paper with graphs. The text on it reads,"Hurricane Florence" and "Camp Fire".
An influx home seekers overwhelms the housing stock in small cities, leading to rent increases.Anjali Nair / NBC News; Getty Images

Three years ago, Pamela Lack thought she had found the house she would retire in. 

The three-bedroom home in Paradise, California, was surrounded by old cedars and a large heritage oak, and had a backyard for her grandchildren and a guesthouse for her aging parents. Lack, a 64-year-old resident of nearby Chico, had savings from a previous home sale and had met with an accountant, and was ready to apply for a mortgage.

But in November 2018, before she could buy, the Camp Fire tore through Paradise, burning down the house, among thousands of others in the surrounding area.

“At first I thought it was a storm and went outside to look,” recalled Lack, whose family was living 12 miles away, in a rented house in Chico, at the time. When she got outside she realized what was happening and said she remembered thinking, “Oh no, this isn’t going to be good.”

Their rental didn’t burn, but what Lack didn’t lose to the flames she lost to the effects. One week after the fire, their landlord received multiple offers from people looking to buy the house. With an overstretched market inflating the price by $100,000, the landlord decided to sell.

The home they had hoped to buy was destroyed, and their current home was being sold out from under them. Suddenly the Lacks had 60 days to find a new place to live.

The house Pamela Lack hoped to purchase was one of thousands destroyed by the Camp Fire in 2018.Courtesy Pamela Lack

They scoured everywhere within 50 miles of Chico for anything to buy or rent, but so did tens of thousands of other people displaced by the fire. The number of available homes and rentals fell quickly, sending prices higher in both the home-buying and rental market.

“I told my daughter on Thursday when the fire happened, by Monday there isn’t going to be anything to buy or rent in Chico,” Lack said. “And that was the case.” 

Lack’s story is not uncommon. An NBC News analysis of historical rental data found rental price spikes in small cities following natural disasters. Experts say the increased demand for short-term accommodation saps an already small supply and makes it difficult for those displaced to find a place to stay. 

Pitted against one another, disaster survivors are all faced with the same predicament: where to call home. Renters, experts say, often struggle the most.

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, many people need places to stay immediately. Displaced renters search for new leases or hotels. Homeowners who lost houses or need to make repairs join the rental market. Disaster workers and contractors tasked to make repairs are on the hunt for their own short-term hotels and apartments. Experts say this puts pressure on the amount of available housing.

“Housing is just like any other thing. It responds to supply and demand,” said Greg Landry, executive director of Acadiana Legal Service Corporation in Louisiana, a nonprofit law firm that provides free services to low-income and older people. “If a storm comes through and destroys large amounts of the housing stock, and the demand is the same or greater, the price starts going up.” 

According to an NBC News analysis of rental price data from the real estate data firm CoreLogic, the mismatch between the availability of hotels and rentals and post-disaster demand is particularly common in cities with fewer than 100,000 residents. In these areas, where the displaced duel for accommodations, renters are often left behind.

For Lack, who runs a Chico-based company that repairs and preps old homes for sale, the rental crunch was so severe that the family considered moving into the sliding-door, metal warehouse where the company stores equipment. The warehouse is filled with shovels, rakes, leaf-blowers and other tools. It has no windows, heating or even a shower. 

“I knew in this climate we would never find anything,” Lack said. “We needed a place to live.”

With no homes in the area available, the Lacks considered moving into the warehouse they used to store home repair equipment.Courtesy Pamela Lack

In Butte County, California, experts said the Camp Fire’s destruction of Paradise sent an influx of survivors into Chico, nearly doubling its population of 92,000 overnight. One broker in the area told NBC News that without a surplus of rentals and hotels to match the need, the share of available rentals plummeted from 2 percent to zero. 

Prices shot upward; one year after the fire the median asking rent for a two-bedroom rental was 25 percent higher than it had been at the same time the previous year.

The impact of floods on the rental market can be even more severe. While fires typically only destroy buildings on city edges, floods devastate buildings throughout, creating a significantly larger pool of displaced and home-seeking people.

The rental market in Wilson, North Carolina, couldn’t withstand this strain following Hurricane Florence in 2018. Nine months after the storm flooded the 49,000-person city, the median asking rent for a two-bedroom rental in Wilson County was more than one-third higher than it had been at the same time a year earlier. And in Louisiana’s Iberia Parish, home to the 31,000-person city New Iberia, there was a similar 23 percent increase in the seven months after a stalled rainstorm displaced tens of thousands of residents in August 2016.

The impact of disasters on the home-buying market isn’t as straightforward. While in Butte County, sale prices increased alongside rental prices, the home-buying markets in Iberia Parish, Louisiana, and Wilson, North Carolina, were unaffected by flooding.

Experts say that a spike in home-buying prices such as the one in Chico occurs when demand for rentals and hotels exceeds supply so significantly that desperate residents who need or want to stay have no other option but to buy immediately if they can afford to. 

Sandi Bauman, broker associate at Chico Homes Real Estate Sales Inc., told NBC News that some of her clients were scrambling to buy just a week or two after losing homes to the fire. “People weren’t looking for their dream home,” said Bauman. “They just didn’t want to park in the tent city.”

Lesley Albritton, disaster relief project manager at Legal Aid North Carolina, said that while housing crunches and inflated prices are challenging for homeowners and renters alike, the protections offered to displaced renters are particularly slim.

“The first things we typically get called about are renters who are displaced,” Albritton said. “There’s no doubt that on balance renters are the most vulnerable population that we serve.”

Albritton said that after a disaster such as Hurricane Florence, the Federal Emergency Management Agency deploys mobile housing units for temporary accommodation that can last up to 18 months. But since counties receiving such units are required to have a place to put them, they are typically reserved for homeowners who can keep them on their property.

Renters in theory are supported by a FEMA program that will pay for an applicant’s hotel fees, but experts say that availability often limits execution.

“The people who came in to help with disaster response took every hotel room in the land,” said Ed Mayer, the Butte County Housing Authority’s executive director. “Every motel room was full for months if not years because of the disaster work camps.”

Albritton said this leaves renters little option but to move farther away while repairs are completed or until an affordable apartment becomes available. Many can’t afford to leave or have other ties to the community.

The effects of relocation can be serious. “Many of our clients are or were employed. Poor and employed. When they are displaced they are displaced from their jobs, communities, doctors and their children’s schools,” Albritton said.

And many people couldn’t afford to leave, even if housing in a nearby county was available. “Many of our clients that stayed did it because the storm hit at the beginning of the month. They had just paid their rent and had no money to leave,” Albritton said. 

The effects are particularly severe for lower-income survivors. Mayer said that before the Camp Fire inundated Chico with homeowners in need of a place to stay, it typically took 60 days to connect applicants with affordable housing through the Section 8 voucher program. About 1 in 8 succeeded. After the fire, the timeframe expanded to six months and only 1 in 16 applicants were provided with accommodations.

“A voucher is counterfeit currency if you can’t use it,” Mayer said.

Paradise and Chico aren’t the only disaster-prone areas with significant low-income populations.

“There’s a popular saying, ‘Disasters don’t discriminate.’ Well, I really think that’s not true,” Albritton said. “The reality in eastern North Carolina is that our lower-income populations are packed into areas that are particularly prone to flooding.” 

In June, a peer-reviewed study from First Street Foundation Research Lab, a group of academic and industry researchers who study climate risk, suggests that, in both rural and urban areas, low-income residents are more likely to live in flood-prone regions. When prices increase after a disaster, displaced residents in these areas are most likely to be priced out of temporary accommodations even if they can find them.

“While there may be some things that we do for clients in the short term, we don’t have a lot of tools in our legal tool kit to prevent rent increase in the longer term,” said Albritton. “There’s no legal remedy for just being too poor to pay rent.”

The effects of increased rental prices and decreased availability are far-reaching and compounding. Legal aid representatives and residents in areas that saw an affordable housing shortage post-disaster told NBC News that people live anywhere they can: in friends’ garages, cars and tents pitched in parks and empty lots. Others double or triple up with friends and family, moving from house to house.

“There’s turnover in jobs, education, everything. It’s completely disruptive,” said Landry.

Some grapple with the lack of stable housing for years. Albritton said that her office in North Carolina is still dealing with people who were displaced in 2016’s Hurricane Matthew and 2018’s Hurricane Florence and have no place to live. And the effect on rental prices rarely fades. 

“I’ve never seen a situation where someone’s rent went up and then came back down,” Albritton said. “Once rent is raised, it’s raised.” 

For some this barrier to re-entering the rental market proves to be insurmountable.

In Chico, Lack was fortunate to have savings. And at the last minute, a friend found a 1,000-square-foot mobile home for sale. It was in need of some work and far from what Lack and her husband had dreamed of retiring in but it was a place to call home.

Pamela and Mark Lack struggled to find a new home after the Camp Fire.Courtesy Pamela Lack

Lack recalled the day that they got the keys, saying: “I just stood in the living room and cried.”

“I will own everything from now on. I will never rent again.”