By Antonia Bradford
Before the CZU fire the housing market in Santa Cruz County was already difficult with high demands and little inventory. After the fire it became nearly impossible. Fire victims, after losing everything, were thrust into a rental market that now was even tighter than before.
Chris Clayton, a Realtor with Anderson Christie Real Estate in Felton, was on the front lines of the housing crisis these families were facing. And it was personal for her.
“I know 15 families personally that lost their homes. These are my friends and clients. I started getting calls right away because they needed help finding a place to live now that their homes were gone,” said Clayton.
Clayton soon became an admin on a local community Facebook support page, SLV Support Group for Home Loss-CZU Lightening Complex Fire. Her task was to help as many people who were displaced find a place to call home. This would prove to be very challenging.
“I was really overwhelmed because there was so much need, but I was also working full time,” Clayton recalls. There were other struggles that came with this important role. “There were so many scams. I kept telling people that if it seemed too good to be true it probably was.”
In addition to scams, price gouging became a problem. Many landlords didn’t understand the parameters of fire victims’ insurance policies. The misinformation that insurance companies would pay high rental prices quickly spread, and houses that were going for $3,500 before the fire were soon priced at $6,000 or higher. Many insurance policies have a dollar amount, not a time amount, for their “Loss of Use” portion, which pays for rent. Once that money is gone, the victim must pay for their own shelter all while potentially being responsible for a monthly mortgage payment. So, the monthly cost of rent really matters.
“This was shocking to the folks who had been out of the rental market for so long. Many of them also had pets or farm animals. Many were elderly and lacked the knowledge of where to even look for rentals. It made placement very difficult.”
Clayton teamed up with fellow realtor Cassie Maas and the two women developed a website comprised of listings specifically for CZU fire families. Reaching out to her real estate network she urged agents to prioritize the fire victims and send rental listings to her first so that she could list them on her website.
“I received so much support from Scotts Valley Property management and Derek Timm, Realtor and Mayor of Scotts Valley. The people in my office also were so supportive. They gave me so many listings and still prioritize fire families when properties become available to this very day.”
Seven months after the fire, the housing needs for fire families hasn’t gone away. Many families were displaced into San Jose or other areas far from home and want to come back home to the mountains. Others are losing their rentals because some landlords are taking advantage of the elevated real estate market and selling their properties, leaving fire victims homeless once again.
Clayton continues to assist fire families in the San Lorenzo Valley whenever she can. Currently she is working on developing an association of realtors for crisis intervention to contend with future disasters so that systems are in place and people get the help they need sooner rather than later.
Clayton said, “As realtors we have so many resources, we should use them to help the community when it needs it.”
Antonia Bradford lives in Boulder Creek with her husband and five children. She is a writer, artist, and business owner. She is an advocate for fire families in the area having lost her own home in Boulder Creek. Antonia is committed to making contributions to the San Lorenzo Valley community wherever and however she can.
Featured photo: Chris Clayton. Photo by Antonia Bradford.