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Wine Country Wildfire Survivors Victimized by Skyrocketing Rents, Evictions

SANTA ROSA (KPIX) -- Some survivors of the wine country wildfires are being evicted from their homes after sharp rent increases. Evictions in burn-affected areas are up - and up dramatically.

The wine country wildfires killed 24 and displaced thousands more.

But three months later, there is now a second wave of victims: losing their homes not to flames, but to evictions.

"It doesn't feel like the 'Sonoma strong' that everybody talks about is happening now," said resident Kalen Wehagen, who is one of those getting evicted. "It feels like people don't care about that. It's just all about the money."

Wehagen, her boyfriend, and their two-month-old son have to be out of their apartment by Tuesday. So do the other tenants there.

Ronit Rubinoff, Executive Director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County, said they're among a mass of people pushed from their homes post-disaster.

"It's extremely concerning," said Rubinoff. "We have a community where affordability is almost nonexistent now."

Since the fire, Rubinoff says she's seen a 20 percent spike in evictions compared to the same time last year.

And in most cases, it's legal. Neither the county, nor the City of Santa Rosa, has a law in that requires eviction to be for a "just cause."

"You can evict a tenant for any reason at all as long as it isn't constitutionally prohibited," said Rubinoff. "So essentially, I can evict you if I don't like you, or I decide that I want to remodel my apartment and charge $10,000 more a month. There's nothing stopping me from doing that."

The ballot measure that would have created that renter protection lost 1,000 votes this summer. Now, Rubinoff says hundreds are suffering the consequences, including Wehagen's family.

"A couple weeks after the fires, we got a notice that our rent was going up ten percent, and then we got a call a couple of days after [my son] was born saying that they were going to remodel and up the rent like, almost 60 percent," said Wehagen. "The day after thanksgiving we got our notice to vacate, and so we've been looking for a place ever since."

So she's spent almost her entire maternity leave working to find another place. It's proven to be an impossible task in a market so tight it may leave her without an option.

"I don't feel like I have a community right now," said Wehagen. "I have a lot of friends who have been are supportive, but I even talked in front of city council and it just feels like nothing is happening."

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