The national media calls them the “wine country fires” — the destructive fires in Sonoma and Napa Counties which decimated thousands of homes and businesses in October.
But to understand the fires’ impact on the immigrant community, the “wine country” description only tells part of the story. Of the roughly 28,000 undocumented immigrants who live and work in Sonoma County, some laborers who worked at affected vineyards after the fires had fewer or no grapes to pick; others picked what was left in the vineyards without masks, prompting an advisory from the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
An even larger population of immigrants utilized widely throughout the county are the undocumented domestic workers — house cleaners, landscapers, and pool cleaners — who relied on employment at large homes in the upper-class hillside neighborhoods of Fountaingrove, the Foothills, and elsewhere.
Nearly all of those homes no longer exist.
Local immigrant advocates predict that domestic workers, and not vineyard workers, will face the biggest challenges rebuilding their lives after the fires. In addition to maid services, landscapers, and house cleaners having far fewer houses to clean and maintain, other longstanding issues of housing and assistance for Sonoma County’s undocumented population have been exacerbated by the fires.
Amid rumors of ICE agents’ presence at local evacuation centers, many undocumented immigrants left the county during the disaster. Already facing lost wages because of evacuation, many were dealt an added blow when they discovered that they were no longer employed.
Mario Castillo, who manages the Sonoma Springs Community Hall and works as a community resource navigator for the First Congregational Church in the Sonoma Valley area, witnessed immediate challenges for local domestic workers. The community hall, about 20 miles east of Santa Rosa, has been open daily for lunches, serving thousands of people since the fires started last month.
“A lot of families have lost their jobs because their employers were not able to go back to their business for whatever reason,” says Castillo. “So they found themselves not only losing income during the time that the fires were happening but also after.”
Homes and businesses where many worked as house cleaners were destroyed in the fires, Castillo says. Other workers were asked to do labor in hazardous conditions, cleaning or picking grapes without adequate respiratory protection.
A week into the three-week blaze, Castillo met six women — one of whom lost her house and family dog in the Nuns-Partrick fire — who worked as housekeepers in a local hotel. They had just returned to the area after evacuating to shelters in nearby towns. The women were upset about being asked to do major cleaning at the business, which had hazardous smoke damage. Castillo stepped in to mediate.
“I called the manager, called the owners and managed to get them a meeting so that they could talk about what was happening,” says Castillo. “Later, I found out that the owner of the hotel laid them off.”
“It’s been very, very traumatic, very stressful, very difficult,” adds Castillo.
Ten miles west of Santa Rosa, Centro Laboral de Graton (the Graton Day Labor Center) connects day laborers, including a large number of domestic workers, with employment at their worker pick-up site. The center also sponsors ALMAS, a domestic worker organizing project. Christy Lubin, the center’s executive director, says the impact on domestic workers is difficult to calculate because domestic workers are a part of the casual economy, and work behind closed doors.
Megan Weber of the California Domestic Workers Coalition says that there were more than 4,000 domestic workers in Sonoma County in 2013, a number that has surely grown in recent years but is hard to collect current data for because of the nature of domestic workers’ casual employment. She points to a 2016 UCLA Labor Center study that shows house cleaners make up more than 50 percent of the domestic labor market statewide.
“The need for data is critical, and many people are grasping for numbers,” says Lubin.
Despite this lack of data — which is crucial for accessing job loss for the undocumented community — Lubin has witnessed a dire impact on some of the laborers at the center.
“A huge number of the houses that burned down were in exclusive neighborhoods. I spoke with one woman who has a crew of five and they lost 20 jobs from the fire,” says Lubin. “On top of losing jobs due to the fire, some have lost homes and possessions, and others are caring for family members who did lose homes.”
Lubin says that many of the women that have returned to work are facing hazardous scenarios similar to those Castillo saw in Glen Ellen.
“Domestic workers are cleaning homes that did not burn but suffered smoke damage. Special companies come in to do smoke damage cleanup, then the homeowners have domestic workers do a final clean before they move back in,” says Lubin. “No one really knows what chemicals were used to remove the smoke damage.” Lubin further questions if domestic workers are supplied with protective equipment, or are trained about the potential risks of cleaning these houses.
No access to FEMA
According to Mara Ventura, Lead Organizer at North Bay Jobs with Justice, a Santa Rosa-based labor and immigrant rights coalition, loss of wages from time away from work and permanent job loss are the biggest issues for the immigrant community after the fires.
“We have, of course, the Coffey Park neighborhood, that had a lot of homes where two to three families were living in them, more middle classes, and also our lower income migrant families,” says Ventura. “Another problem is that a lot of folks worked up in the Fountaingrove area, and lots of them worked at the businesses that were lost. They don’t know what they’re going to do now that the homes they clean, or the pools they clean, or the landscaping work that they do is no more,” she adds.
A recent report shows that Sonoma County has the largest Latino population in the North Bay region. Ventura says that this population has the highest number of adults who are underemployed, working part-time hours and working for rates of $10 per hour (minimum wage) or below.
“Many of them work multiple jobs. The impact of the fires, for many of them, have been loss of wages for a week or two, and it could impact their family, and will for months, when they’re living paycheck to paycheck,” says Ventura. “We’re really concerned about the rains coming, and the floods coming, and what plans people are making in the long-term.”
With disaster funds from FEMA allocated strictly to U.S. citizens, undocumented residents have fewer options for financial support. In mid-October, the Mexican consulate stepped in, offering help with locating missing people, document recovery and referrals to housing or shelter and psychological services. At the consulate’s two-day drop-in site in the Roseland neighborhood of Santa Rosa, all financial needs were assessed on a case-by-case basis. At that point, the fires had been burning, still widely uncontained, for 10 days.
Before the Mexican consulate showed up, however, Latino-led community organizations began laying the ground work for financial assistance.
The UndocuFund program, a collaborative effort between North Bay Jobs with Justice, North Bay Organizing Project and the Graton Day Labor Center, aims to fill the financial gaps left by lost wages. The groups came together quickly to get UndocuFund up and running; by the fourth day of the fires, UndocuFund had a bank account and support from the Grantmakers Concerned for Immigrants and Refugees to administer funds.
A website with its mission to “provide direct funding to undocumented immigrants in Sonoma County and their families to help with expenses incurred directly as a result of the fires” was live, and donations started rolling in. To date, UndocuFund has raised nearly $1 million.
Omar Medina says that within the first week, California Human Development in Santa Rosa identified 400 families who needed immediate assistance and who wouldn’t otherwise qualify for government-based services due to their immigration status. Medina, treasurer at the North Bay Organizing Project and a volunteer with UndocuFund, says that on-the-ground reporting has been key as well.
“We gathered a group of undocumented folks and family members also impacted and asked them, ‘What are you going through? What are you seeing? What are you hearing from your community?’,” says Medina.
From his initial assessment, his findings echoed what Ventura was hearing: financial support for rental assistance or first-month deposits were the biggest needs. Applicants will receive help with paperwork through community partner organizations and application clinics, and once applications are received by UndocuFund, all information will be reviewed and verified before funds are dispersed.
Other community organizations in the area have also started funding programs for immigrants, including California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance: Northern California Affiliate, Latino Community Foundation, La Luz Center, and the California Bar Foundation.
And while support of the various funds has been positive, Medina points out that rental assistance won’t do much good if there aren’t available rentals.
An estimated 4,600 homes were destroyed by the Tubbs Fire in and around Santa Rosa alone, and another 10,000 residential properties were damaged countywide, leaving a reported 5-percent decrease in housing in a region that has already been stretched beyond its means for available residential property.
According to a report published by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board in April 2017, rental vacancy rates in 2015 were at 1.8 percent and the homeowner vacancy rate was at a mere 1 percent. Rents have increased by 45 percent in the past five years, creating additional housing barriers in a region plagued by a housing crisis and a growing homeless population.
The topic of available and affordable housing has been a contentious one in Sonoma County. Earlier in 2017, the North Bay Organizing Project campaigned for Measure C, which would have reinstated rent control and just-cause eviction rules previously enacted by Santa Rosa’s city council. But the measure only received 47 percent of the vote and was defeated after the opposition garnered more than $800,000 in donations, by far the highest amount raised for a political campaign in Sonoma County, mostly from outside realtors and apartment owners associations aiming to fight rent stabilization.
“While I don’t think Measure C was the ultimate answer, it was definitely a step in the right direction,” says Ventura. “An unfortunate step that had to be taken because we were seeing landlords unfairly evicting people, and unnecessarily raising rents… I bring that up because now, as people say, ‘What are we going to do about these rents?’ Like, we would have had a solution, and I don’t think it’s completely not an option anymore.”
Housing advocates hope that California’s anti-price gouging statute — which prohibits increases of more that 10 percent on the price of many consumer goods and services, including rent, after an emergency has been declared — will help stabilize the scarce housing market during disaster recovery in Santa Rosa. The statute may stay in effect for up to 180 days after Governor Brown’s official declaration of emergency on Oct. 9.
On Oct. 24, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved urgency ordinances to suspend new vacation rental permits for 45 days, and agreed to temporarily allow travel trailers and other recreational vehicles to serve as housing where septic services are available, as well as converted garages and other units without kitchens. The board also approved an extension on seasonal farm worker housing from 180 days to 365 days a year, which may provide some relief for many of the area’s immigrant workers. Additionally, the county voted in early November to allow temporary emergency housing — in the form of travel trailers, mobile homes and tiny houses — at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa for up to two years.
Still, Ventura doesn’t think it is enough.
“I think we’d like to still see our city council or our board of supervisors to consider a rent moratorium,” Ventura says. Beyond the 10-percent mark for price gouging, Ventura says, even “1 percent is not acceptable,” she says. “You should not be raising rents unless it’s directly related to a cost you had to incur.”
Lubin agrees that issues of affordable housing and low vacancy rates have affected immigrant workers in Sonoma County for years; the fire only exacerbated the problem. But with that population growing, Lubin imagines a future for Sonoma County that’s eerily similar to that of Marin County, to the south.
“We could lose residents in the long run,” Lubin says, “and become a commuter county for low-wage workers.”
Ventura points out that immigrant families already faced many variables before the fires. Even rain can put an undocumented or immigrant family behind in rent if it creates a barrier for them to get to work on time.
And while programs like UndocuFund can provide temporary financial support, it is hard to estimate what long-term solutions can be put in place to support the undocumented community.
“I think that the frustrating part for me,” adds Castillo, “is that a lot of the issues that we are facing right now are issues that we have had for a long time: access to good education, access to mental health, access to adequate housing, access to a living wage. These are all the issues that we’ve had to deal with for a long time, but situations like this fire just makes it even harder for the undocumented community.”