Image from The Oregonian
FOREST GROVE, OREGON - There may be an upside to the downturn, Dana Tims wrote recently in The Oregonian, a sliver of silver lining in the clouds of woe that have enveloped all but a very lucky few since the Wall Street collapse of 2008.
He spotted it in Forest Grove, Oregon, a "bedroom community in Washington County of just over 21,000 about 25 miles west of Portland. It was a groundbreaking ceremony hosted by Bienestar; a not-for-profit organization founded 30 years ago to "develop communities where residents find dignity, hope, confidence, skills, and courage to pursue their dreams." Since then, it's built and operated more than 450 units of affordable housing in small and mid-sized Oregon communities like Aloha, Hillsboro, Scappoose and, yes, Forest Grove.
The ceremony took place at a vacant, 5-acre site in Forest Grove. It's not the first time an organization has had plans for the parcel. In fact, reports Tims, it's "been the focus of several development projects, all of which ended in foreclosure once the housing downturn hit in 2006."
Thanks to $3 million in USDA Rural Development grants and loans and $750,000 in HOME Investment Partnership funds from HUD through the Washington County Office of Community Development, Bienestar appears to be the first to actually deliver on its plans, putting more than 110 skilled workers in the hard-hit construction trades back to constructing Juniper Gardens, a 24-unit complex for farmworker families. Once they're finished later this year, Bienestar plans to break ground for another 22 units.
But why's Bienestar building housing for farmworkers in a "bedroom community"? Drive around a bit and you'll get the answer pretty quick. Close as it is to a big city Portland, in Oregon Washington County is still a bit of an agricultural powerhouse. In 2008, for example, the dairy products and wheat, hay and grass seed, berries and hazel nuts produced on farms and nurseries in Washington County generated more than $300 million in sales, the fifth-highest among Oregon's 36 counties.
Where there are farms, there are farmworkers and where there are farmworkers there's a need for decent, affordable housing for them and their families. Unfortunately, many of them don't get it. "There are still migrant labor camps in Washington County that have just horrible conditions," Bienestar executive director Karen Shawcross told Times. "They are deplorable. Camps with families packed into little sheds," Shawcross said. "No heat. No water. Communal bathrooms. It's like living in a Third World country."
All told, Shawcross said, there are some 720 families in Washington County who need the kind of housing Juniper Gardens will offer. And some housing Juniper Gardens will be. In addition to roomy, energy-efficient and affordable units, the grown-ups will have access to programs such as GED, English as a Second Language and computer classes while the kids will have a homework club, a summer reading program, a nature camp and soccer and basketball teams.
A few years ago, Shawcross added, Juniper Gardens would have been a no-go. So what made it work? Well, it all goes back to Tim's observation of a possible upside to the downturn. Back then, developable land in Forest Grove was selling for up to $500,000 an acre. Today the price is just $100,000 or so an acre. "Those reduced land prices were a huge benefit to us," she said. "We wouldn't have been able to afford it otherwise."
After all the bad luck the downturn's brought into so many lives, maybe Juniper Garden is a small sign that the luck's beginning to turn and those dark clouds are moving on. It can't happen soon enough.