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'We need something better than sleeping in cars'

Local builders, bankers and governments are racing to identify land where temporary housing could go while the Rogue Valley begins the long process of rebuilding from wildfires.

They met Thursday at a meeting hosted by Rogue Credit Union in Medford to launch a coordinated effort to tackle the problem.

“We need to give people a place to call home for now while we develop permanent solutions. We need something better than sleeping in cars, tents and shelters,” said Laz Ayala, owner of KDA Homes, an Ashland-based home construction company.

He’s willing to donate the use of two pieces of property he owns for temporary housing.

Building and development experts said recreational vehicles and trailers offer the fastest route to rehouse people who lost their homes to the Almeda and South Obenchain fires.

It will take a mix of private and publicly owned land to accommodate the temporary housing, builders said.

Builders can help by putting in the water, sewer and electrical service needed to house people in trailers and RVs. Long-term, they’ll be the ones rebuilding decimated neighborhoods.

“There’s lots of builders willing to jump in and help. You’re going to see a community come together,” said Randy Jones, a partner with Mahar Homes.

More than 2,600 residential properties were damaged or destroyed by the Almeda fire, primarily in Phoenix and Talent, along with more than 180 businesses. The South Obenchain fire claimed more than 150 structures ranging from barns to houses.

Some experts at the meeting estimated the community will need to identify 200-400 acres scattered around the area for temporary housing.

Home sites that burned have to be cleaned up before rebuilding can start. Getting through the reconstruction process will take months or years for most people.

Talent City Councilor Daria Land lost her home to the Almeda fire. She said she’s fortunate and has enough support from people that she can probably couch surf for a year.

But Land doesn’t want to stick out the long clean-up and rebuilding process while being reliant on others. She said she wants her own place to call home, even if it’s a fifth-wheel trailer.

“If I don’t get it soon, I’ll probably make the decision to leave,” she said.

Land said many other people could leave Jackson County if they can’t find a place to stay.

Displaced residents are scattered with friends and family in White City, Grants Pass, Cave Junction and other places far from Phoenix and Talent. The Phoenix-Talent School District estimates 40% of its students lost their homes.

“People are leaving. People are suffering,” Ayala said.

The Latino population has been particularly hard hit by the loss of housing.

“In this community, they are definitely the backbone of the agricultural industry and even the hospitality industry and, in a big way, the construction industry,” Ayala said.

Some farmworkers are undocumented immigrants who don’t have access to Federal Emergency Management Agency aid.

No matter their ethnicity, workers were in short supply for a variety of industries, including construction trades, even before the local fires. The fires will worsen the labor crisis — making it more important than ever to keep residents living here, Ayala said.

Many of the builders and bank managers at the Thursday meeting said they have co-workers whose homes burned.

Jackson County is among the local governments stepping in to help on the housing issue.

Jackson County Development Services Director Ted Zuk and other planners have compiled a list of potential sites for temporary housing, said Senior Deputy County Administrator Harvey Bragg.

The county is also hiring consultants who are experts on the clean-up and reconstruction process, including how to navigate the FEMA process.

FEMA provides a variety of aid for disaster victims, including trailers.

Bragg said the county owns property that could potentially be used for temporary housing.

The community will need flexibility on land use rules in order to build temporary housing and bring sewer, water and electricity to those sites, builders said.

Jackson County Commissioner Bob Strosser said commissioners plan to pass a resolution and send it to Gov. Kate Brown and other state officials calling for flexibility.

“These are different times, and we can’t just sit around while people are without housing,” Strosser said.

Ken Trautman, chief executive officer of Medford-headquartered People’s Bank of Commerce, said the community needs to identify how many people who lost their homes will want temporary housing in trailers. Some have found other places to stay.

“We need to know the scope of the problem,” he said.

Evacuees also may have different needs, depending on whether they are senior citizens living alone, for example, or are families with kids, Trautman said.

Looking to the future, he said the rebuilding process is an opportunity to create more resilient communities.

“We’ve got to think long-term. How do we not let this happen again?” Trautman asked.

Kelsy Ausland, owner of Ausland Group, said the fires will worsen the Rogue Valley’s housing affordability problem.

Rentals and entry-level houses have long been in short supply. The Almeda fire wiped out swathes of manufactured and mobile home parks, along with apartments, townhouses and single-family houses.

Ausland said builders need incentives and subsidies so they can build housing that’s affordable. They’ve already been warned lumber prices are going up 30%.

“How do we start solving the permanent housing crisis?” she asked.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

A neighborhood in Talent, Ore., that was destroyed by the Almeda Fire is pictured on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. Sisters Tammy Johnson and Misty Pantle and Pantle’s three teenage children shared one of the homes in this neighborhood destroyed when the Almeda Fire swept through the towns of Talent and Phoenix in southern Oregon.