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Subsidized Households and Wildfire Hazards in California


As deadly and destructive wildfires become increasingly common in the western United States due to climate change, low-income households face particular difficulties recovering from these disasters. Despite this threat, surprisingly little empirical evidence exists about the exposure and vulnerability to wildfire hazards of residents of subsidized housing. This study focuses on the subsidized housing population for several reasons: residents generally have less adaptive capacity to respond to wildfires; the locations of subsidized housing units reflect relatively stable locations of low-income households for decades; and policymakers can intervene to retrofit existing housing as well as shape future housing siting and design. The dataset created for this study includes all Census tracts in California with housing units by type, wildland-urban interface (WUI) coverage, and an index of social vulnerability. Using a combination of descriptive statistics and spatial regression models, the analysis focuses on the intersection of subsidized housing and wildfire hazards. Results show that subsidized housing is disproportionately located outside the WUI in California’s metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. However, policy interventions are necessary because many vulnerable households—including those residing in the 140,000 subsidized units in the WUI—live in harm’s way.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Manufactured housing is included as a reference category to compare with subsidized housing given the social vulnerability of residents of this housing type and that it is generally categorized as a relatively affordable housing option, similar to that of many subsidized housing types (Durst and Sullivan 2019; Pierce and Jimenez 2015).

  2. 2.

    These categories were created by aggregating categories in the Census’s “units in structure” estimates. Other units, as defined by the Census, include RVs, vans, and boats.

  3. 3.

    HCVs are a portable subsidy while the other programs provide project-based subsidies. Portable subsidies mean that a household can apply its subsidy on the private market, while project-based subsidies are tied with specific housing units.

  4. 4.

    Other project-based programs are Section 8 moderate rehabilitation, Section 8 project-based rental assistance, rent supplement, rental assistance payment, Section 236, Section 202 for the elderly, and Section 811 for persons with disabilities.

  5. 5.

    This method is likely to produce a mild overcount of subsidized housing in the WUI; for instance, it was found that the tract-level method led to an overcount of about 6.8% more LIHTC units in the WUI.

  6. 6.

    As a comparison, subsidized housing in areas designated by CAL-FIRE as being in “very high” fire hazard severity zones were examined (CAL FIRE 2007). This dataset is not central to this analysis because these zones are relatively outdated—from 2007—and the state is in the process of updating with new models (Pickoff-White 2019). There are more than 1.3 million California households residing in very high fire hazard severity zones (VH-FHSZ). Consistent with the WUI analysis, owner-occupied and detached housing are disproportionately located in the VH-FHSZ. The highest share by housing type is manufactured housing, with 67,000 units—15% of the total manufactured housing in the state—in the highest risk wildfire areas. More than 28,000 subsidized units in a VH-FHSZ, including more than 11,000 each of Housing Choice Voucher and LIHTC households, were estimated.


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We are grateful to three anonymous reviewers for their thorough and thoughtful feedback. We thank Annabelle Rosser and Kyra Gmoser-Daskalkis for their excellent research and copy editing assistance. We also appreciate assistance from David Helmers of the University of Wisconsin SILVIS Lab, and staff from CAL FIRE and the California Department of Housing and Community Development.


This work was supported by the California Strategic Growth Council (Climate Change Research Program Grant CCRP0056).

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Correspondence to C. J. Gabbe.

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Gabbe, C.J., Pierce, G. & Oxlaj, E. Subsidized Households and Wildfire Hazards in California. Environmental Management 66, 873–883 (2020).

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  • Subsidized housing
  • Wildfire
  • Wildland-urban interface
  • Hazard
  • Vulnerability
  • California