North Bay fire survivors rally to shame insurance companies to extend home rental benefits

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A throng turned out Friday night at Old Courthouse Square for a last-ditch rally to press insurance companies to extend monthly living expenses for thousands of 2017 North Bay fire survivors whose new homes will remain under construction early in October at the two-year mark since the disaster.

“We want to shame them. We want to embarrass them,” said Vita Iskander, who lost her house in Hidden Valley Estates during the Tubbs fire and is a State Farm policyholder.

Iskander is living in a rental home. She does not know when she will be able to move into her new house, but State Farm told her that rental benefits for temporary housing will expire on Oct. 16.

“Their commercials are like ‘We’re there to hold your hand’ or ‘We’re there for you.’ No they’re not,” she said.

Exasperated fire survivors organized the rally in downtown Santa Rosa, since insurers have rebuffed their repeated requests to extend for another year their coverage for living expenses — 24 months is required under state law — because of widespread construction delays. There are 2,500 homes still in the rebuilding process in Sonoma County. Only 15% of the residents rebuilding after their homes were torched in the infernos were living in their new houses at the end of August.

“Nationwide ... not on my side,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, who lost her Oakmont home in the Nuns fire and doesn’t expect to be in back in her rebuilt house for another year. “Shame on the insurance companies for putting us through more grief.”

Using his bully pulpit, California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara this summer called on all home insurers to provide another year of rental coverage for 2017 fire survivors, but only Farmers and CSAA Insurance agreed to the extension.

Those two insurers were lauded by rally participants, while they scorned the others, particularly State Farm and Nationwide.

Despite the pressure from the state insurance commissioner and public outcry, thus far all but the two home insurers haven’t budged. Nationwide said this week it was “applying the appropriate coverage for each individual based on the insuring contract.” State Farm, meanwhile, said it would “see if there is anything more we can do to support them (policyholders) in their recovery process.”

Essentially, the tussle between insurers and county fire survivors ended last year when the insurance industry’s lobby in Sacramento made sure legislation that passed extending living expenses to three years didn’t apply retroactively to policyholders whose houses were burned down in 2017 blazes.

At Friday’s rally, county Supervisor James Gore read aloud a few of the signs visible in the audience: “Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm is there — Not.” “Allstate, the empty hands people.” “Been a State Farm customer for 45 years, cut me off after 24 months.”

Gore told the crowd on Monday morning he would switch his homeowner insurance from State Farm to another insurer.

“Nobody is delaying. Nobody is sitting around, dragging their feet, trying to extort these insurance companies,” he said. “If they don’t have the money to pay you what you need, they then need to stop advertising every third commercial on our TV shows.”

Maria Gaitan said she’s frustrated by the insurers uneven treatment toward fire survivors. Farmers is paying her another year of living expenses, while her house is being built in Mark West Estates. However, her parents who lived nearby — 91-year-old Moises and 85-year-old Carmen Landeros — have State Farm coverage and are facing elimination of their rental benefits. Both are on fixed incomes and have health issues.

She wants State Farm to pay a few more months of rental payments for her parents. “I just think the companies need to do right by us.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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