California’s homeless population grew by more than 21,300 people in 2019. That’s an increase of 16.4% — more than all other states in the nation combined, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

No matter where you stand on this very complex and controversial issue, the fact is that California has not yet been capable of addressing the current homeless issue-let alone the  catastrophic impacts if a major earthquake left many thousands more homeless or jobless in our region.

Affordable housing at risk

Arizona braced for this scenario in 2018, when it conducted a full-scale earthquake drill to prepare for an estimated 400,000 Southern California evacuees expected to seek shelter there after a massive earthquake.

The reason for this anticipated wave of nearly a half million refugees is simple: a substantial lack of earthquake resistant buildings. The majority of structures identified as at risk of failure in an earthquake represent older, more affordable housing stock and commercial buildings that provide much-needed manufacturing, logistics, and service-related jobs in the communities they serve.

The loss of these structures could bring serious economic dislocation, with thousands of people left without a roof over their heads or a job to provide for their families.

We saw this on a small scale when refugees from the 2017 fires in Napa and Sonoma counties were faced with a true housing crisis. Those who were displaced, whether they owned their homes or rented, faced an expensive real estate market already seriously squeezed by a limited housing stock – particularly for affordable housing. Following the fires, many of those who lost their homes fell victim to rent-gouging. Families with children doubled-up with neighbors hoping to keep their kids in the same school district.

This dire housing situation will become an even more serious concern following a major quake in more densely populated areas, the Association of Bay Area Governments determined. If many of a region’s affordable housing units are lost in an earthquake, “a constrained market may drive up the cost of housing even further. Loss or damage of housing that results in increased costs… will likely increase the number of permanently displaced Bay Area residents.”

The White House, in its National Security Strategy dated December 2017, listed the promotion of American resilience against natural disaster as one of the country’s primary security issues for the coming year. This included a call to “Build a culture of preparedness – taking steps to promote preparedness and to empower communities and individuals to take action to be more resilient against the threats and hazards Americans face.”

Earthquake resistant buildings benefit everyone

Resilience is essential to a functioning society, ensuring:

1. Protection of affordable housing stock

Preserving the housing inventory  helps to avoid catastrophic displacement and homelessness.

2. Economic stability

Widespread homelessness and joblessness due to an earthquake disaster in California would trigger billions of dollars of economic loss to local communities, the state and beyond.

3. Environmental health

Many seismically vulnerable buildings contain asbestos and lead. Preventing these structures from being damaged averts widespread exposure which can impact humans and nature. It also avoids overburdening landfills needed to dispose of the rubble from a major quake.

Ultimately, identifying our most vulnerable buildings and retrofitting them to increase resiliency helps keep our entire society healthy and safe. That’s good for everyone.