From OregonLive.com, Dana Tims, The Oregonian , 27 Feb 2012.
FOREST GROVE — A continued downturn in the region’s housing market is producing an unexpected upside in the form of 24 new apartments dedicated for farmworkers.
Officials at Bienestar, a nonprofit organization based in Hillsboro, held a groundbreaking ceremony today for Juniper Gardens, a $5 million project that, when finished in December, will address at least a portion of western Washington County’s unmet demand for farmworker housing.
Helping drive the project was a combined loan and grant of $3 million from the rural development arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The award, received through a national competition, was the only one in Oregon and one of only 10 in the United States, said Karen Shawcross, Bienestar’s executive director.
Yet as important as the grant is to the project’s success, she said, no less a factor was the availability of the property upon which it is being built.
The land had been the focus of several development projects, all of which ended in foreclosure once the housing downturn hit in 2006. Bienestar, using a $750,000 grant from the Washington County Office of Community Development, ultimately bought the property from the bank that held title to it at the time.
Before the recession, an acre of land in Washington County was selling for about $400,000 to $500,000, Shawcross said. Bienestar, taking advantage of the downturn, ended up paying $110,000 an acre for the site.
“Those reduced land prices were a huge benefit to us,” she said. “We wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise.”
Juniper Gardens is just the first phase of the project. Construction of additional 22 units on land immediately west of the first phase is expected to get under way in January.
The units themselves all will have two, three, or four bedrooms, meaning families will reside there. The lack of studio apartments means no single adults will live in the complex, Shawcross said.
To qualify for residency, at least one adult family member must earn $4,800 annually in farm-related income. Qualifying income has been expanded in the past few years to allow those working in food services to live there, as well.
Rents for two-bedroom units range from $725 to $750 per month. However, rental assistance money provided through the USDA grant guarantees that no family will have to pay more than 30 percent of its monthly income in rent.
Juniper Gardens will provide far more than just shelter to its occupants.
Adult offerings include English as a Second Language tutoring, computer and financial literacy classes, community gardens, a job club, free income tax preparation and nutrition classes.
Children in the complex can participate in homework and science clubs, summer reading programs, soccer and basketball teams, and a nature camp sponsored with help from the Audubon Society.
Neighbors living around the property appear to have mixed views on the project. Some complained about not receiving notices prior to construction getting under way. Others, living closer to the five-acre site, said they did get regular notices but say they worry about traffic and noise likely to be generated on and around the site.
Three neighbors interviewed would not give their names for publication, saying they didn’t want to get off to a bad start with Juniper Gardens’ future occupants.
Juniper Gardens, while a welcome addition to the county’s farmworker-dedicated housing inventory, will put only a dent in the total demand for such dwellings, Shawcross said. A market study conducted prior to groundbreaking indicated that at least 720 such units are needed immediately in Washington County, she said.
Still, any new construction at all will be welcome, given the alternative.
“There are still migrant labor camps in Washington County that have just horrible conditions,” she said. “They are deplorable.”
Shawcross and other agency officials try to make regular tours of those camps, but they face dangers themselves when doing so, she said.
“Camps with families packed into little sheds,” Shawcross said. “No heat. No water. Communal bathrooms. It’s like living in a Third World country.”
Bienestar, which turns 30 this year, operates seven projects in Aloha, Cornelius, Forest Grove, Hillsboro and Scappoose. Future projects, in addition to more farmworker housing, are expected to focus on low-income seniors.
“They represent another segment of the population that has been hurt by the recession and need some new options,” Shawcross said. “We’re hoping to help meet their needs, as well.”