A dream come true

New housing helps here and abroad

The wind kicked up dust Friday at the grand opening of Casa de Alma, a newly finished farm-worker housing project at Middle Mountain Orchards in Odell. But a little flying dirt couldn’t obscure the joyful mood as more than 50 people celebrated the success of an unprecedented collaboration in the agriculture industry.

Casa de Alma is a farm-worker housing development built on orchardist Rick Marsh’s property on Gilhouley Road. Just about everything about the housing units is unique — not only in the Hood River Valley but state- and nation-wide.

“This is just an answer from heaven,” Marsh told the gathering, which included Senator Rick Metsger, D-Welches, and Executive Director of Oregon Housing and Community Services Bob Repine.

The project was spearheaded by Portland-based Hacienda Community Development Corporation, a non-profit organization that works to provide affordable housing and economic development to underserved populations around the state. For more than a decade, the organization has been involved in maintaining rental properties and developing affordable homes and commercial properties. A couple of years ago, organizers set out to address a growing problem in the state: farm-worker housing. They formed a plan that would require a cooperative effort between a willing farmer, Hacienda, an architect and a general contractor — the latter involving an unusual twist.

“We traveled to several areas in the state to see what kind of response we got,” said Jose Rivera, executive director of Hacienda. “Rick (Marsh) was the only one who actually came to the table and said, ‘I’d like to see if we can make this work.’” The idea was for Hacienda to lease the property for the housing units from Marsh and build three state-of-the-art buildings with housing for 20 workers. Hacienda would serve as property manager while Marsh would pay utilities and do routine maintenance. In addition, Hacienda would work with local service providers — like La Clinica — to ensure that health care and other basic needs of the workers were provided for.

The project’s novelties didn’t stop there. General contractor Baltazar Ortiz proposed constructing the buildings from a new biodegradable product called Cellex, a cement composite touted for its energy efficiency, strength and affordability.

Through a partnership between Ortiz, a founding board member of Hacienda, and a Mexican manufacturing company, arrangements were made for a dozen Mexicans to come to Oregon to learn how to build Cellex and construct buildings from Cellex panels. When the project was complete, they would return to Mexico to begin manufacturing Cellex there. The goal behind this aspect of the project, according to Rivera, is to create a viable industry in Mexico which provides jobs as well as a product that’s affordable to Mexicans.

“It will also reduce migration of illegal workers to the U.S. because they will be getting paid a living wage,” Rivera said.

Ortiz called Casa de Alma the “launching pad” for providing additional affordable housing around the state and the country.

“The beauty of this project is that, unlike many American firms that set up businesses in Mexico to make products that are not affordable to the people making them, this is affordable (to them),” Ortiz said.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished today,” Ortiz added. “We’ve helped change the lives of people.”

Casa de Alma — named after Alma Patricia Soria, formerly the general consul from Mexico in Oregon who was instrumental in helping form the Mexican-American partnership — consists of three, two-story buildings with dorm-style sleeping accommodations and a central kitchen. Each building has a balcony and is oriented toward a commons area. Landscaping, a paved parking area and views of Mount Adams and the surrounding orchards complete the atmosphere, which has more the feel of a clean apartment complex than farm-worker housing. Among the advantages of Cellex is its insulating qualities; despite Friday’s 90-plus degree temperatures, the rooms of Casa de Alma were pleasantly cool.

Sen. Rick Metsger called the project “sensational.”

“What’s really helpful about this is that now we have a working model,” he said. “Others will be able to see the value of expanding on it.”

Hacienda already has two more farm-worker housing developments like Casa de Alma underway in Molalla and Sandy. In addition, it is planning 15 single family farm-worker houses in Dayton.

For Marsh, who grows pears and cherries, it’s a win-win situation for him and his workers. He said he was sometimes “embarrassed” by the housing he previously had to offer his workers.

“I’d have to say, ‘Well, we’ll have to get these pears out and then maybe we can do something about this floor,’” Marsh said. Sweeping his hand around the new buildings surrounded by orchards and and looking toward Mount Adams in the distance, Marsh added, “This is a dream come true.”

Latest stories

Latest video:

Parkdale third graders sing "12 Disaster Days of Christmas"

Welcome to your sing-able Christmas gift list. What follows is an emergency rendition of “12 Days of Christmas” – for outfitting your home or car in case of snow storm, earthquake, flood or other emergency. Read it as a simple list, or sing it to the tune of “12 Days” – you know, as in “ … and a partridge in a pear tree…” Not to make light of it, but the song is a familiar framework for a set of gift ideas that you could consider gathering together, even if the recipient already owns items such as a bunch of coats, tire chains and flashlights. Stores throughout the Gorge are stocked up on all these items. Buying all 12 days might be prohibitive, but here are three ideas for checking any of the dozen off your list (notations follow, 1-12.) The gift items needed to stay warm, dry and safe are also coded to suggest items in your abode (A) in your car (C) or both (B). 12 Gallons of Water (A) 11 Family meals (B) 10 Cans of propane (A) 9 Hygiene bags (B) 8 Packs of batteries (A) 7 Spare coats (B) 6 Bright red flares (C) 5 Cozy blankets (B) 4 Tire chains (C) 3 Flashlights (B) 2 cell phone chargers (B) 1 And a crush-proof first aid kit (B) Price ranges? Here’s a few quotes for days Three, Two, Four and Nine: n A family gift of flashlights (three will run $15-30, Hood River Supply, Tum-A-Lum) n Cell phone chargers (two will run $30-60) n Tire chains (basic set, $30, Les Schwab, returnable if unused for the winter) n Family meals ($100 or so should cover the basics for three or four reasonably well-fed days) n The home kit should be kept in a handy place near an exit, and remember that water needs to be replenished every few months. If you have a solid first aid kit already, switch out the gift idea with “and-a-sto-o-u-t- tub-for it-all …” Otherwise, it’s a case of assembling your home or car kits and making sure all members of the family know what the resources are and how to use them (ie flares and propane). Emergency situations are at worst life-threatening, at best deeply uncomfortable if you and your family are left without power for an extended period, or traveling and find yourself in a situation where you need to wait out a storm, lengthy traffic delay, or other crisis. Notes on the 12 gift ideas: 12 – Gallons of water: that’s one per person in a four-member family to last for three days, the recommended minimum to be prepared for utility outages. 11 – Easy-open packaged goods, energy bars, dried food and nuts are good things to include for nutrition. Think of what your family of four needs for three days to stay fortified and hydrated (see number 12). Can-opener also recommended 10 – If you have a propane camping stove, keep extra fuel handy. 9 – Hygiene bags: put packaged moistened towelettes, toilet paper, and plastic ties in large garbage bags (for personal sanitation) Resource list courtesy of Hood River County Emergency Management, Barbara Ayers, manager/ 541-386-1213. The county also reminds residents to Get a Kit, Make A Plan to connect your family if separated, and Stay Informed. See www.co.hood-river.or.us to opt-in for citizen alerts. Enlarge

Log in to comment

News from our Community Partners