A spate of “Help out this family!” crowdfunding campaigns have been cropping up in my facebook feed this week as refugees from the California fires resurface to find their homes reduced to ashes. One gofundme in particular stood out. Created by the brother of a young couple in their thirties, it featured a picture of their 1.25 million dollar home on the Malibu coast, purchased three months previously, now reduced to ashes. The gofundme was asking for $50,000 to help this couple “get back on their feet”. It’s entirely feasible that this young couple – who clearly have enough disposable / family income to buy a 1.25 million dollar home in Malibu – have shitty homeowner’s insurance – but at the very least, we know that a homeowner in Malibu will be insured in the event of the loss of their home. Their home will be rebuilt by insurance money.
What comes into question is exactly what’s covered while their home is being rebuilt. The key provision in a homeowner’s policy is the additional ‘loss of use’ or ‘Coverage D’. This is what provides a family whose home has been deemed uninhabitable with living expenses to cover temporary residences, moving costs and transportation. This provision is entirely dependent on what kind of coverage the homeowner purchased. Those who have more money probably purchased more effective and more thorough coverage than the poorer family getting the cheapest insurance possible.
America, of course, loves tragedy, and loves to throw their spare change at anything newsworthy, emotive, tragic or cute. Only this week while Malibu burned an emotive story of a homeless veteran and a photogenic New Jersey couple was revealed to be completely fabricated in order to defraud the public of the $400,000 raised on gofundme. It is slightly harder to fabricate burning one’s house down nor am I suggesting anyone who has suffered loss in the fires has done this, but it is worth questioning the affluent family with the expensive real estate appealing for financial help: what exactly does your loss of use cover? What exactly are you asking us to cover? What makes your needs a priority over and above the thousands affected by these fires?
As a photojournalist, I spent a day last weekend in and around Malibu, speaking to farm workers, ranch hands and surfer kids, the last few inhabitants of Zuma Beach, either too poor to leave or with nowhere much to go. What struck me most is our LA obsession with those who have lost property, as if the loss of property is the tragedy, over and above the lives, the environmental impact, the suffering, the disruption. We rarely stop to think about the workers who just lost a home and a job because their ranch burned down. The renters living in a tiny home dependent on the affluent lady who owns the land. The poverty stricken tenants who lost their possessions and home – but won’t have homeowner’s or renter’s insurance to help them out.
Just this year it was reported that LA’s homeless population has grown by 75% in the last six years, making a massive leap from 32,000 to 55,00. The reasons for the growth are numerous: a sharp decline in the availability of affordable housing, hastened by sky-rocketing rents fueled by young professionals and sites such as airbnb. Los Angeles is distinguished in the country for having the least amount of shelters and resources available for its homeless population, according to a US department of Housing and Urban Development study from 2016. Taxes have been earmarked to build housing and supportive services for homeless people, although many of us who have worked at a grassroots level in places the most affected – such as Venice Beach – have encountered first hand the increasing difficulties in trying to build affordable housing in neighborhoods which are rapidly gentrifying. The problem inherent in gentrified neighborhoods is that no one wants a low income housing unit next door to their million dollar home. There is a sense that the problems of homelessness in LA can and should instead be dispelled with the politics of abandonment.
This is Los Angeles: plagued with rich people, poor people and nowhere affordable to live. Fire, of course, is the great leveler of us all, and partly what seemed to strike a chord in the nation were the images of celebrities – let’s face it, of ‘rich’ people – hovering on Zuma Beach, unsure if they had homes to go to, sleeping in their cars, wrapped in blankets, dirty, hot and confused. That democratizing spirit has spread through to crowdfunding, it seems, where young professionals who lost their million dollar home by the beach are now touting their gofundme links to help them re-establish their affluent lives. Inconvenience and loss are not, I would argue, quite the same as destitution and hardship. Losing a home can be a devastating loss which tears your life asunder – but probably, for most of the affluent folks in Malibu who have adequate insurance and presumably a higher than average income or endowment, it will eventually prove to be little more than an inconvenience.
Before you contribute to the sad young couple who just lost a home that only about 2% of Americans will ever be able to afford, please consider doing a quick dig around the internet to locate those people whose losses from this fire will be completely devastating and for whom $50,000 could provide the difference between survival and recovery, or a spiraling path to permanent homelessness and greater loss. They are out there, probably about to sign up for MediCal and Foodstamps, trying to figure out whose sofa they can sleep on next. There may be no home for them to rebuild or return to. Their appeal would probably not include a picture of a luxury beachfront home, a ranch or a swimming pool to highlight how much they’ve lost. That’s because those who have the least to lose, are often closer to the bottom and more in need of aid than those who have a greater height to fall. You don’t know someone’s financial circumstances from the outside, no. But you do know this is America, and the more you own, the better your insurance.
The rich folks will be OK. Let’s prioritize those truly in need when we’re cleaning up the ashes.