The following information is from Helping Handbook, a Resource for Individuals, Families and Small Businesses put together by Morrison & Foerster LLP for the 2017 Wildfires in Northern California. It provides an overview of some issues that individuals, families and small businesses may face as a result of the recent wildfires. This information is current through October 20, 2017. This is for general information purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as legal advice. Myers, Widders, Gibson, Jones & Feingold LLP renders legal advice only after compliance with certain procedures and when it is legally and ethically permissible to do so. Readers acting on any information on this website are urged to seek tailored legal advice from their legal counsel.
My primary residence (house, condominium, or apartment) was destroyed by the wildfires. Although I have been able to stay in shelters or with friends and family, I need temporary housing of my own. Can anyone help me find temporary housing or help pay for it?
One or more of several different programs or entities should be able to help you in these circumstances. First, various charitable organizations such as the American Red Cross may be able to provide assistance. Contact information for the Red Cross is available on its website, Second, if you have homeowners or renters insurance, temporary housing may be covered by your policy. Contact your insurance agent. Third, as discussed below, the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) has several programs that may be able to assist you.
Transitional Shelter Assistance (TSA) Program
FEMA’s TSA Program provides short-term lodging assistance for evacuees with a continuing need for shelter because they are unable to return to their homes for an extended period of time after the original shelters have closed. Under the TSA Program, you may be eligible to stay in a hotel or motel for a limited period of time and have the cost of the room and taxes covered by FEMA. FEMA does not cover the cost of incidental room charges or amenities such as telephone, room service, and food.
For those who are eligible, FEMA will authorize and fund the use of participating hotels and motels (through direct payments to the hotel and motel) as transitional shelters. The initial period of assistance will be 5 to 14 days from the date of TSA implementation. If needed, FEMA, in conjunction with the state, may extend this period of assistance. Those interested in TSA should register with FEMA for assistance. You can determine eligibility online at https://www.disasterassistance.gov/ or by calling (800) 621-3362. You can search for an eligible hotel at http://www.femaevachotels.com/ or visit https://www.disasterassistance.gov/ and click on the “Transitional Sheltering Assistance Hotel Locator.”
Rental Assistance through Individuals & Households Program (IHP)
IHP provides tax-free grants (Rental Assistance) to households displaced from their primary residence by a federally declared disaster such as the wildfires. These need-based grants enable homeowners and renters to secure temporary housing while repairs are made to their pre-disaster primary residence or while transitioning to new permanent housing. Rental Assistance may be used to rent a house, apartment, manufactured home, recreational vehicle, or other readily fabricated dwelling. To be eligible for Rental Assistance, the following conditions must be met:
• you have losses in a presidentially declared disaster area; • you have no insurance, or your insurance claim has been denied, or your insurance settlement does not cover all of your losses;
• you or someone who lives with you is a U.S. citizen, a non-citizen national, or a “qualified alien” (see Immigration chapter);
• the affected home is where you usually live and where you were living at the time of the disaster; and
• you are not able to live in your home now, you cannot get to your home, or your home requires repairs because of disaster damage.
Only one application will be accepted from each household (generally, all people living in one apartment or house). (See additional information about IHP resources for rebuilding your residence below in the Repair and Rebuilding section of this chapter.) Apply online for assistance at https://www.disasterassistance.gov/ or call the FEMA helpline at (800) 621- 3362.
Government-Provided Temporary Housing
If FEMA determines there is no rental housing available in the local community due to the disaster, it may provide Government-Provided Temporary Housing (e.g., modular or mobile homes) to disaster victims. As of October 20, we have not been able to confirm whether FEMA will be providing this type of housing in response to these wildfires.
Separate from FEMA assistance, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) may offer Section 8 rental assistance and relocation plans for tenants in subsidized public housing. Aid also may be provided through California’s HOUSING 2 Current as of October 20, 2017 State Supplemental Grant Program (SSGP).
If you were living in a Rural Development-financed apartment and have been displaced, you may be eligible for additional assistance from the USDA Rural Development Agency. For further information about this benefit, call (800) 414-1226.
My primary residence was damaged during the wildfires. If I move out while repairs are being made, can I get any assistance in finding and paying for temporary housing?
Depending on the amount of damage, you may be eligible for assistance. Potential sources include charitable organizations, your insurance, and FEMA’s IHP, discussed above.
During the wildfires I was ordered to evacuate my primary residence. Instead of going to one of the local shelters, I rented a room in a motel. Can I obtain reimbursement for the money I spent on the motel room? What if my primary residence was neither damaged nor destroyed as a result of the wildfires?
You may be eligible for assistance from charitable organizations, your insurance, or FEMA. FEMA provides lodging expense reimbursement for hotels, motels, or other short-term lodging while an applicant is displaced from his or her primary residence. You should save your receipts and document your expenses in case you are able to file for reimbursement. (The same disaster assistance process described above will apply to determine your eligibility relative to FEMA’s potential reimbursement.)
My primary residence, which I own, was destroyed by the wildfires. Am I obligated to continue paying my mortgage, homeowners association fees, insurance, etc. on that residence? Does it make a difference if my residence was only damaged rather than destroyed?
Unless you obtain a forbearance agreement from your lender, you should continue to pay your mortgage regardless of whether your residence was destroyed or damaged. You should contact your mortgage servicer (the company where you send your monthly payments) to discuss possible mortgage relief options. If you are having trouble contacting your mortgage servicer, contact the Homeowner’s HOPE Hotline at (888) 995-4673 for assistance.
If your loan is owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, you may be eligible to temporarily stop making your monthly mortgage payments for three month intervals up to 12 months. You can check to see if Fannie Mae owns your loan at https://www.knowyouroptions.com/loanlookup or by calling (800) 232-6643; you can check to see if Freddie Mac owns your loan at https://ww3.freddiemac.com/loanlookup/ or by calling (800) 373-3343 and selecting option #2.
If (i) your residence has suffered substantial uncompensated disaster damage (40% or more of the original property value), (ii) you intend to repair the damage or rebuild, and (iii) you do not have sufficient credit available elsewhere to cover your mortgage payments, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) may be able to refinance all or part of your outstanding mortgage which could result in a reduced monthly mortgage payment.
If your home loan is through the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), you might be able to have it adjusted. Call the VA regional office where the property is located. The proper regional office should be identified on the loan papers. If the papers are not available, call the VA at (877) 827-3702 for the number of the correct regional office. You can also speak with a loan specialist about your options by calling the VA at this number.
With regard to homeowners’ association fees or insurance premiums, you should review the language of your association’s bylaws and the insurance policy. It is likely in your best interest to pay the amounts owed unless you obtain written confirmation that you do not have to pay or may defer payment for a specific time.
The following is general information for tenants regarding premises damaged by the wildfires. Individual circumstances will vary. For many of these questions, you may want to contact an attorney.
If my rental unit has been damaged or destroyed, what issues do I need to consider?
• Do you have a written lease?
• How badly is the rental unit damaged?
• Do you want to keep possession of the apartment, move out temporarily while the landlord makes repairs, or move out permanently?
• Is the unit rent-controlled or subsidized?
What if I have a written lease?
Your rights will be determined by the lease’s provisions to the extent they are not superseded by California law. Although “form” leases are commonly used, the provisions covering disasters vary significantly even for different leases in the same building. You should ask a professional to check the provisions of your lease to answer these questions for you.
How do I assess the damage to my rental unit?
Under California law, landlords must maintain rental units in habitable condition. A residential tenant cannot be forced to waive his or her right to habitable premises. Unless you have a unique lease that you negotiated with your landlord, this information about habitability most likely applies to your rental unit. To be considered habitable, the rental units must substantially satisfy all of the following conditions:
• roof and exterior walls must be waterproof;
• windows and doors must be unbroken;
• plumbing and gas systems must be in good working order;
• hot and cold running water must be provided;
• sewage disposal systems must be operational;
• heating equipment must be in good working order;
• electrical lighting and wiring must be maintained in good working order; and
• floors, stairways, and railings must be kept in good repair.
If my rental unit is damaged, what can I do if I have a month-to-month rental agreement and want to move permanently?
You can give one month’s notice to your landlord and then move. If the unit is substantially damaged (damaged to the extent the premises can no longer be used as a residence), you may not need to give a full month’s notice. In that case, see the guidelines below. If my rental unit is damaged, do I have to pay rent if I have a one-year lease and I want to move out permanently? Under California law, you may terminate your tenancy and not pay rent if the unit is substantially damaged. If you want to terminate your tenancy, you should:
• check your lease for applicable provisions;
• make a list of the unit’s impaired and damaged conditions;
• obtain FEMA inspection reports;
• request a local city building inspection and obtain a certified copy of the inspection report;
• photograph the damage and record the date the picture was taken, who took the picture, and the subject of the picture; and
• have the unit and building viewed by reliable witnesses and record the date of the viewing and what the witness saw.
Assuming these efforts lead you to conclude that your unit is substantially damaged, write a letter to your landlord, enclose copies of the documentation set forth above, state that the rental unit is not habitable, and state that you consider the lease terminated. Sign and date the letter and keep a copy for your records. You then will be in a position to proceed as if the unit had been destroyed. If your landlord disputes your position and you have not done so already, you should promptly consult an attorney or seek the services of a legal aid organization.
Can I terminate my lease if my rental unit is materially damaged?
You must first notify the landlord about the needed repairs and give the landlord a reasonable time to make the repairs. If the landlord does not make the repairs within a reasonable time, then you may be able to terminate the lease. The landlord may dispute whether the repairs are necessary and whether he or she had a reasonable time to make the repairs, in which case you may need to contact an attorney or seek the services of a legal aid organization.