“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.”
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 percent 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 neighborhood for gentrification, some say, describing neighborhoods 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, 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 council member 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 currently available on the market.
But many cash sales and neighbor-to-neighbor 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 $12,000 each. Some lots have sold for $5,000 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 $20,000 to $30,000 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 percent of the pre-fire population, have returned — any developers with the resources to buy entire streets will have to wait, he said.
Even neighbor-to-neighbor transactions have been slow when an entire town has been scattered to the winds.
Laura Mangold is among many residents looking to expand their existing property by buying from neighbors, so she can rebuild a slightly bigger house on her scorched land and use the lot behind it for a garden.
“I don’t know how to reach them,” Mangold said, staring out through the wooden frame of what will soon be her family room window.
Individual homes left standing amid the apocalyptic moonscape here have proved tough to sell, Voigt said. But prices have soared in some relatively unscathed pockets. He pointed out a house that he estimates would have cost about $290,000 a year ago. It went for more than $360,000.
“Standing in the backyard, you couldn’t tell there had been a fire,” he said.
Kathy Nixon decided to leave Paradise to provide a stable living situation for her disabled husband, but they are holding on to their lot in the hopes that it will appreciate.
That has meant paying property taxes on their land and more than $20 a month for a water system that doesn’t work. Cutting the line would result in an exorbitant reconnection fee, she said.
Resident Brenda Wright said she has no intention of selling the corner lot where the 46-year-old house her parents built stood, with its high ceilings and antique furniture. But that hasn’t stopped opportunists from showing up, she said. One man, who came to give an estimate for debris removal, told her the lot wouldn’t be worth anything and that he’d be happy to take it off her hands.
“That’s what’s going on up there. These vultures from Sacramento and San Francisco are just sweeping them up,” said Wright, who said she sent the man packing.