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.”