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Habitat for Humanity aims to help rebuild after fires

Hoping to help families impacted by the Almeda fire, as well as furthering its mission to help low-income families find housing, Rogue Valley Habitat For Humanity is putting out a call for available land — charred or otherwise.

With real estate and vacant land at a premium in Southern Oregon, the mission of building affordable housing has been tougher in recent years. After some 2,500 homes were destroyed in the Sept. 8 fire that swept through Talent and Phoenix, the shortage of land and the need for affordable housing became even more urgent.

Denise James, Rogue Valley Habitat for Humanity executive director, said her agency has focused on myriad ways to help the community recover from the devastating fires.

Immediately after the fires, Habitat volunteers and staff set up a “tool share” program to provide fire victims with tools for sifting through rubble and ash for personal belongings.

Weeks later, they spearheaded a furniture warehouse to begin accumulating household items for fire victims.

Their next idea involves obtaining land on which to build affordable homes while helping, if necessary, with cleanup efforts.

Though a number of agencies are offering resources and post-fire mitigation, James said some homeowners could feel stuck about what has to happen for properties to be deemed safe for rebuilding.

“We have spoken to companies who do environmental cleanup and feel we would be able to take on any of the environmental issues. We have heard that some people are frustrated with FEMA and are trying to get things cleaned up, so we’re willing to help manage that process, if they need, to allow them to move forward a little sooner,” James said.

Operations Director Brandon Thoms said Habitat was open to purchasing properties that have already been cleared or even those still covered in rubble and ash.

“There are people who have already found other housing or bought someplace else and maybe don’t even know what’s supposed to happen next with their property that was in the fire zone,” Thoms said.

“Some people were uninsured, and they’re relying on cleanup from FEMA. Some had insurance, but it’s a slow process. I think a lot of people are just so overwhelmed by the need to follow the process to a T, because of the fear that if they don’t check every box that they could lose the assistance they are relying on to get their property cleaned or face additional fines or fees they weren’t expecting.”

Thoms said their focus is to help families who have faced great losses and families who were already waiting for their new beginning before the fires.

“We get three to five calls a week from people interested in housing. People are craving normalcy. Maybe someone lost their home in the fire and they were able to use insurance payments to find a place elsewhere,” Thoms said.

“What better way to turn a tragedy into a new beginning for someone else than to help provide them the incredible hand up and opportunity of home ownership?”

James said her agency is committed to being part of the rebuild effort and ensuring that low-income housing remains a primary focus in the recovery efforts in Phoenix and Talent.

“We are open to purchasing individual lots or larger pieces of property in a neighborhood so that we could develop those areas with affordable housing,” she said.

“We are concerned, as these cities rebuild, that the options of affordable housing are going to be pretty minimal. Phoenix and Talent have always been known for having more affordable housing for the lower-income members of our community. I think some people may really want to see their communities continue to provide affordable housing for those who need it.”

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

How to help

Rogue Valley Habitat for Humanity is building its 73rd house since it began in Southern Oregon three decades ago.

It funds its program with donations and sales from its Restore along South Pacific Highway.

Executive Director Denise James said the agency would leverage donations and proceeds from sale of a property in Rogue River to continue its mission to secure land on which to build affordable housing.

To donate, or for information about volunteering after pandemic restrictions are eased, see www.roguevalleyhabitat.org or call 541-779-1983.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Denise James, executive director of Rogue Valley Habitat for Humanity, at a construction site of a future home in Medford Tuesday.