Skip to navigation

Skip to main content


January 2020, Volume 26, Number 1

California: Fires, Housing

Pacific Gas & Electric declared bankruptcy in 2019 after admitting liability for $30 billion in losses due to wildfires in 2017 and 2018. Eight of the 10 most destructive wildfires in California history have occurred since 2007, including six in 2017 and 2018.

In an effort to prevent more wildfires, PG&E in October 2019 shut off power to over 700,000 homes and businesses, drawing protests from those affected by the largest power shut-offs to prevent wildfires in the state's history. San Diego Gas & Electric pioneered preventive shutoffs in 2009, and invested heavily in both weather forecasting and microgrid technology to turn power on and off to small areas.

PG&E, with 16 million customers, has not invested enough to trim trees around its power lines or to develop microgrids so that power can be turned on and off to smaller areas. The value of PG&E stock, $37 billion in 2017, fell to less than $3 billion in October 2019.

The Kincade Fire that began October 23, 2019, likely caused by PG&E equipment, burned 78,000 acres despite the efforts of almost 5,000 fire fighters. PG&E shut off power to over a million California homes and businesses to prevent more wind-driven fires on October 26, 2019. Northern California had three Diablo (devil) wind events in late October 2019.

The Sonoma grape harvest was nearly complete when the Kincade fire erupted, but some farm workers were displaced and some late varieties of grapes were not harvested. Emergency regulations adopted in July 2019 require employers to move workers to cleaner air if the air pollution index exceeds 150 or provide them with protective masks.

California's snowpack was above normal in winter 2019-20, promising ample water for summer 2020. About 30 percent of California's water is snow that melts in summer and flows south via rivers and canals. Lake Shasta, California's largest reservoir, was 73 percent full at the start of 2020.

Housing. California lacks 3.5 million housing units, including 1.5 million for the state's lowest income residents. The median price of a house is $550,000. In the US, over 55 percent of one-bedroom apartments rented for $1,000 a month or less; in California, the share of under-$1,000 a month one-bedroom apartments was less than 30 percent.

California has an eighth of US residents and half of US homeless people. With tent camps becoming more prominent, there is a growing backlash against those who take over sidewalks and litter neighborhoods. Many critics of social service agencies and NGOs that offer food and tents to the homeless say that these services attract more homeless people.

Los Angeles has 59,000 homeless people, prompting some local residents to put boulders or prickly plants on sidewalks to prevent the homeless from erecting tents. Los Angeles voters approved a sales tax increase and a bond measure to deal with homelessness, but little has changed. Social service agencies explain that the homeless have multiple issues, from drug to alcohol abuse, so that only building more shelters will not solve their problems.

QVC handbag entrepreneur Bruce Makowsky built the most expensive US house, a 12-bedroom, 21-bathroom mansion completed in 2017 in Bel Air and listed for $250 million. The 38,000 square-foot home sold in October 2019 for $94 million.

California had 40 million residents at the end of 2019 and a $3 trillion state GDP, and is home to many of the world's most valuable companies, including Apple, Google and Facebook. However, the population increased by less than 150,000 in 2019, as 40,000 more US-born residents left the state than arrived, bringing net migration to other states to over a million between 2006 and 2019. California lost 400,000 people under 18 since 2010, and may lose one of its 53 House seats after reapportionment in 2020.

The most common interstate moves in 2018 were from California to Texas (86,000) and Arizona (69,000), and from New York to New Jersey (65,000) and Florida (63,000). The states with the largest percentage increase in population between 2018 and 2019 were Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Texas.

The US had 328.2 million people in mid-2019, up about a million due to natural increase and 600,000 from net immigration.

Stockton began an experiment with a universal basic income in February 2019, providing 125 people with $500 a month and tracking what they did with the extra money. Many of the recipients already receive welfare benefits, and the first data show that they spent 40 percent of their supplemental $500 a month on food and 25 percent on clothing and home goods. Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has proposed a monthly grant of $1,000 for those who agree not to receive other welfare benefits.

California embarked on an ambitious plan to build a $60 billion high-speed rail system to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles in two hours and 40 minutes. The cost of the system spiraled in part because the state's Rail Authority did not have clear title to land when contractors were ready to build. Governor Gavin Newsom wants to build a 171-mile segment linking Merced and Bakersfield, while some legislators want to shift high-speed rail funds from the central valley to the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

On November 8, 1994, voters approved Prop 187 by a 59-41 percent margin to deny state services to unauthorized foreigners. Many analysts say that Prop 187, most of which was never implemented, helped to make California a Democratic state by encouraging Latinos and Asians, who vote two to one for Democrats, to register and vote.