Wildfire victims thrust into Northern California housing shortage

Wildfires worsen California's housing crisis

Thousands of victims of California's wildfires are stuck with no place to live -- in the middle of an already severe housing shortage in the northern part of the state. Three fires in the last two months destroyed more than 20,000 structures in the region.  

The Camp Fire was the state's deadliest and most destructive wildfire ever, killing 86 people and displacing an estimated 35,000 others. It's proving impossible for many evacuees to find housing.

Tabatha Brewster and her two daughters are starting over from scratch after their home was one of the nearly 14,000 destroyed in the blaze.

"I lost everything that I had … pictures I can never replace," Brewster told CBS News' Jamie Yuccas. "I mean, a part of me feels really selfish for just wishing I would have saved something, would have run out with something."

The family is using money from FEMA to move from motel to motel. Brewster wants to keep the girls in their school, so for now, she drives them an hour each way. She hopes to find a permanent home nearby but said, "There's nothing to be had. There's no place to live."

"We're not equipped to negotiate a disaster like this," said Ed Mayer, executive director of the Housing Authority of Butte County. "As of the date of the crisis there might be 1,000 units in Butte County that were available … all of those units are spoken for now."

California was already facing a housing shortage of almost 1.5 million units. 

With the loss of tens of thousands of homes to wildfires, the state is simply unable to absorb new homeowners. Mayer said the disaster could triple the number of homeless people in his county to 6,000.

"We're playing musical chairs with housing. It takes someone to move out of a unit for someone to secure a unit … So everyone's just waiting," Mayer said. "The difficulty is finding viable alternatives … bringing in FEMA-manufactured housing units, finding family or friends to live with."

FEMA has approved roughly $27 million in housing grants for Camp Fire survivors and plans to bring in 1,300 temporary homes. 

Mayer said rebuilding Paradise will likely take 10 to 20 years – an unthinkable timeline for Brewster and her daughters.

"I think that every child needs a little bit of stability and there's no stability ... it makes me feel like a bit of a failure that I couldn't find something fast enough," Brewster said. "I can't live in motels forever. I'm hoping that something comes together."

Brewster said FEMA told her it will pay for her motel stays for the next six to 18 months. That should get the family through the end of the school year, when they can make a new plan about where to live.