The magnitude of the Woolsey Fire’s devastation was unthinkable, with nearly 500 homes destroyed in the City of Malibu alone. Three years later, it’s unthinkable that only a small percentage of homes have been rebuilt—as of Tuesday, Nov. 9, the third anniversary of the fire brning through Malibu, only 55—leaving hundreds of Malibu residents still without a permanent home.
With about 475 homes destroyed in the city, that leaves less than 12 percent of those homes now habitable. So far, 318 residences have been approved by the city’s planning department; 209 of those have been issued construction permits with 154 rebuilds currently underway. Of 18 apartment units destroyed, 12 have been rebuilt.
The reconstruction can’t come fast enough for those who have exhausted their temporary residence benefits from fire insurance or were priced out of the area in the meantime. One hundred-seventy homeowners have either given up, been priced out or simply have not yet decided to rebuild.
The Malibu Times spoke with Yolanda Bundy, Malibu’s environmental and sustainability director and building official, about the painstakingly slow rebuild process.
Bundy detailed the hurdles facing homeowners rebuilding, addressing the root cause of delays that persist.
“The city is doing on average more than 300 Woolsey Fire inspections [per month], besides everything else going on,” she said, such as normal remodels. Each project must go through multiple detailed rebuild inspections that include checks on foundations, grading, framing, plumbing, electrical and exterior finishes, to name a few. It’s a time-consuming process at each phase. Currently, the city has only three inspectors and one consultant to handle all that work. “The contract inspector helps with the overflow requests so we can be there in a timely manner,” Bundy said.
Another reason there are so few homes completed, Bundy said, is a result of nationwide supply chain issues.
“With the backlog of those cargo [containers], there’s really a crisis. We’re having issues with windows …. homeowners are waiting up to six months,” Bundy said. “We have a shortage of appliances, fixtures and cabinets. This creates a huge delay in the completion of a lot of our homes.” Bundy said nearly 15 homes are close to finished but the absence of key components is holding those back.
Still, roughly 109 projects are just now under plan check review—the first stage in the multi-step process.
“Why is it taking so long?” was Bundy’s rhetorical question. The answer?
“A lot of the homeowners didn’t start right after the fire. They submitted their projects last summer or this year,” she said. “It took time because of the challenges with insurance. They didn’t know how much they’d be reimbursed. They wanted a better understanding of how to budget so they could move things forward. Those are the biggest issues I’ve seen.”
That has led to fatigue.
“A lot of homeowners are frustrated,” Bundy said. “It’s been three years they’ve been out of their homes. They’ve gone through so much. First a fire, then COVID, now the cost of materials is rising. That has been a challenge.” Bundy said some homeowners with approved plans have had to scale back due to rising costs.
With City Hall open since summer, appointments have picked up for applicants to meet in-person with the environmental health, geotechnical, biology, planning, and building and safety counters.
“That is helping moving things along,” Bundy commented. “Our operations are more streamlined, but it’s still by appointment only. We’re trying to be cautious with the staff and community to make sure we don’t have any outbreaks because some people haven’t been vaccinated.”
“The biggest lesson I see now is budgeting and ordering materials in advance,” Bundy advised.
“The shortage of materials and the prices of steel, wood and concrete have increased,” she said. “My sympathy and my heart goes to them (fire victims). It’s three years and something no one will forget. The city is very committed. I am here personally to follow up with residents in every step of the process. I am here to serve in any capacity I can.”