WALLA WALLA - On a Thursday in late June three, 4-plexes were set ablaze at Farm Labor Homes a few miles southwest of downtown Walla Walla, Washington.
Not to worry. The fires were deliberately set, a practice burn for the City's fire department. It was long overdue said some. "I've even offered," Heather Dunnagan of the Walla Walla Housing Authority told Sheila Hagar of The Union-Bulletin, "to light the match a couple of times."
Walla Walla - the "town so nice they named it twice" - is a city of almost 32,000 in southeastern Washington state. Long celebrated for its sweet onions and apples, wheat and alfalfa, more recently it's more than 125 vineyards have taken top billing, their wines increasingly gracing tables in homes and fine restaurants around the world.
Where there's agriculture, of course, there are agricultural workers and those workers need places to live. For decades Farm Labor Homes has been that place in Walla Walla. Initially the 46-acre site was developed as military housing during World War II. At war's end, county commissioners established a housing authority which assumed management of the complex. By 1972, Hagar reports, the "aging military barracks" needed replacement and the county's housing authority built 140 new units, mostly for farm workers and their families.
Which is when, she adds, the "vision for the homes got blurry. Board members often did not understand the need for appropriate upkeep and how to seek grant money to help with that." Units weren't "regularly inspected" and staff training was "ignored." By the time new commissioners took their seats on the Authority's board in 2010, the deterioration in "everything," explains Kate Bobrow-Strain. the new board president, "from the physical condition of the units to the professional expertise of staff to the way the board was run to the accounting system." couldn't be reversed.
New solutions were in order. Big solutions. Like giving residents of Farm Labor Homes a "fresh start." Like, starting fresh, demolishing the existing stock and teaming up with the city's housing authority - and manage - affordable, quality, efficient units to replace them.
Smart solutions all. As executive director of the city's housing authority, for example, Renee Rooker "has overseen a dozen building and renovation projects," says The Union-Bulletin. Just as important, her grandparents were farmers and she says she "spent most of my childhood summers with them." And it gave her ample to see first-hand how farm worker families lived. "Mostly shacks," she recalls.
The 60 units known as Valle Lindo built by the city housing authority in consultation with Beacon Development built and opened on the site in late 2011 most certainly aren't shacks. It's "very basic housing," Rooker explains, but "eco-friendly," with washers and dryers and porches in each unit and a community building for continuing education and neighborhood gatherings. And they're be affordable, from $570 to $716 a month with some units for holders of HUD Housing Choice Vouchers. "Hopefully," she tells Hagar, "we're creating a place where people can live with dignity."
Ditto for phase two of Valle Lindo. Funding to cover the $12 million cost of building the next 68 units is provided by Washington state's Housing Trust Fund and private investors. HUD Community Development Block Grant funds earlier were provided by the Washington Department of Commerce to bring the site's water system up to code. Construction of the new units will start in September and completed next summer. Ownership of and responsibility for both phases has been transferred from the county to the city housing authority.
"Good teams get great results," said HUD Northwest Regional Administrator Mary McBride. "For proof, look no farther than Valle Lindo and the work done by these two housing authorities and their partners. It's collaboration at its very best. HUD is pleased that they are making use of some of our resources to restore high-quality farmworker housing in an area where it is a critical need."
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