With rents soaring after fires, can Santa Rosa make room for middle class?

More than a month after the Tubbs fire burned down his house, Vincent Larsen has yet to find a new home.

As soon as they could, he and his fianceé applied to a series of rentals in Santa Rosa, Calif. – nearly 15 in the past two weeks alone, he says. But competition is fierce. “Everywhere we went there were already eight other people looking at the place,” says Mr. Larsen, an electrician who supplements his income by doing odd jobs.

Because he didn’t have renters insurance, Larsen – who makes about $40,000 a year – lacks the benefit of having an insurance company offer landlords exorbitant rental rates of up to $13,000 a month to put him at the front of the line. Meanwhile he’s living with his fianceé and her 8-year-old daughter at her mother’s house, trying to keep up with the costs of restarting their lives.

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“It’s hard right now,” Larsen says.

The series of wildfires that engulfed more than a million acres in Northern California in early October was among the deadliest in state history, killing 42 people and incinerating some 8,400 structures. Preliminary losses are estimated at more than $1 billion. The largest inferno, the Tubbs fire, destroyed 3,000 homes – about 5 percent of the housing stock – in Santa Rosa alone, squeezing an already strained housing market and leaving residents like Larsen with limited options.

With tragedy, however, comes opportunity. Before the fire, the area was being divided by a rapidly growing income gap. The disaster exposed the cracks in the community’s infrastructure and social services and spurred residents to support one another. And it has pushed officials and advocates to consider rebuilding in a way that accounts for the challenges that faced the region pre-fire – as well as the lessons they’re learning about living in a fire-prone area.

“This has been a real learning curve for us in city government who have never seen a…

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