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Post-Wildfire Rebuilding Remains at Snail’s Pace

Hot Santa Anna winds are blowing again. Humidity has dropped and the unmistakable dryness has returned to San Diego.

It’s been one year since the region was under siege that prompted the largest fire evacuation in U.S. history.

The 20-plus widefires consumed more than 1,600 homes and 13 percent the county’s landmass.

Only a tiny percentage of homes had been rebuilt by August and less than half were in the permitting pipeline, according to a recent San Diego Foundation Community Needs Assessment Update.

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Some residents are waiting for insurance settlements. Others may be in foreclosure, according to the report.

And there has been little boost to the ailing construction industry.

“If it did show up, it would be hard to pick up at this point,” said University of San Diego economist Alan Gin. “Permits are down. And construction employment is down considerably compared to a year ago.”

At the height of the 2007 disaster, there were seven separate fires burning in the county with projected damages exceeding $2 billion.


Lots For Sale

Real estate broker Jeffrey Smith, who lives in Rancho Bernardo, said 39 homes in his neighborhood were destroyed. Many such as his are under construction, but some of the charred lots are for sale.

It took him more than eight months to break ground , to settle with his insurer, submit plans to the city and receive permits.

“We thought we were behind the eight ball starting in July when in reality we were the middle of road,” he said.

Smith says he’s lucky because his insurer paid out everything owed to him by April.

“We negotiated our own deal. Our insurance company was small. They didn’t have huge losses and were very fair,” he said.

After the 2003 fires, it took three years for homeowners to complete rebuilding, according to the foundation report.

“I would love a contract to investigate that topic,” says Jim Bliesner, director of the San Diego City-County Reinvestment Task Force, who sits on the foundation’s board. “There are people still from the first fire trying to unravel insurance. There’s a dramatic need for local government to investigate the local insurance companies’ response.”

In short, policies don’t often cover all rebuilding costs , which include structural replacement, furniture replacement, landscaping and fire code upgrades. All of this is amplified when homes have lost equity after a decline in value.

“A lot of these poor people lost a home and when they re-evaluate the piece of property, they don’t get enough money to rebuild,” said Steve Conboy, founder of BluWood, which puts fire retardant coating on lumber used by contractors. “Their insurance policy does not pay enough to replace what they had.”

He added, “We’re talking to all the different groups dealing with these fire victims. A lot of (the victims) are stuck.”


Renters Impacted, Too

The foundation, which dispatched recovery teams countywide, found that renters , many uninsured , lived in 30 percent of the destroyed homes.

“Part of the job of being on the board is to go out and do field surveys,” said Bliesner. “We took a trip to San Pasqual Indian reservation. There were 100 mobile homes parked on the reservation for farm worker housing. .. Fire went through and erased them all.”

Fire also swept La Terraza Apartments in Rancho Bernardo, destroying nine buildings in the 402-unit complex.

“Some tenants lost everything had,” said Wayne Green, the managing partner Alliance One, which owns the complex.

Green said insurance didn’t cover his rebuilding costs, such as mandated sprinkler systems or $200,000 in landscaping costs.

“We’re still in the process of doing that battle. Hopefully insurance covered most of it. Obviously, you can’t wait,” he said.

The development expects to reopen most of the 63 damaged units in the next month or two.

The contractor restoring La Terraza said the city’s expedited permitting process helped get the project up and running fairly quickly.

This one was permitted in 60 to 90 days,” said Jeff Bunker, president of Wemers Group. “I think the city did a good service to most of those folks out there.”

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