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The long process home

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Melissa Lebarre-Empson and Tom Empson stand in the kitchen of their new mobile home in Ashland. The couple are being helped by a $45,000 state supplemental grant being administered by Access.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Melissa Lebarre-Empson and Tom Empson stand in the back door of their new manufactured home. The couple are being helped by a grant that helped pay for infrastructure expenses.
Ashland couple’s replacement manufactured home is nearly complete thanks to help from Access, neighbors

With the help of a state forgivable loan program and a Southern Oregon nonprofit, Tom Empson, and his wife, Melissa Lebarre-Empson, are nearly home.

The Empsons’ double-wide manufactured home at Bear Creek Mobile Home Park in Ashland, which will replace the single-wide they lost in the Almeda fire, is about a month away from move-in ready.

Compared to the 22-foot travel trailer where they’ve been living for most of the past 13 months, they described their new home as “just like a palace.” They’ve hardly had separate rooms for more than a year.

“We’re going to have to put little bells on each other,” Empson joked.

“No, don’t come find me,” Lebarre-Empson said playfully.

As optimistic as they are now, the Empsons nearly walked away from Southern Oregon for good over a five-figure surprise.

In August, about a month before their manufactured home was delivered, the Empsons learned they’d have to pay roughly $48,000 extra for “infrastructure” expenses such as their new home’s driveway, plumbing, awnings and stairs.

“It was to the point where if we didn’t find help, we were just going to bounce,” Empson said. “We were just going to leave the area.”

They found a major lifeline through a state supplemental loan program administered by local nonprofit Access.

The Oregon Housing and Community Services forgivable housing loan program covers up to $35,000 for infrastructure costs on a single-wide manufactured home and up to $45,000 toward a double-wide.

The $50 million loan program was funded by the state Legislature, according to an earlier news report.

“They could only get us $45,000, but hey, that’s better than none,” Lebarre-Empson said.

Access Housing Director Joe Vollmar said the Empsons are one of the first families the nonprofit has helped connect with the OHCS supplemental grant administered through Access’ new Center for Community Resilience in downtown Medford.

In total, the center is helping about 60 fire survivors work toward home ownership.

“We expect to be able to serve quite a few families,” Vollmar said.

The Empsons’ neighbors encouraged them to reach out to Access during a September Zone Captains Program meeting via Zoom.

“Through all this we’ve learned you really do have to stay close to our community,” Lebarre-Empson said.

About 40% of the Ashland park residents who lost their homes in the fire are returning. The Empsons said many of their neighbors have also alerted residents to programs such as an Oregon Department of Energy grant that will cover much of the cost of replacing their heat pump.

“We’ve lost so many others that couldn’t afford to come back,” Lebarre-Empson said. “We’re all feeling the need to get closer.”

Prior to their unexpected construction bill, the Empsons thought they’d be able to replace their home without help from any sort of state program. They thought they had a good fire insurance policy, and after years of retirement, Lebarre-Empson found full-time work at Shop’n Kart.

“Our situation was unique,” Lebarre-Empson said.

Vollmar said that the available programs and resources have certain eligibility requirements, but there’s no minimum requirements for a fire survivor to ask Access for help from a housing counselor.

“We can work with anybody,” Vollmar said.

Staff at the nonprofit take a close look at the fire victim’s needs and financial situation, determines what the fire survivor qualifies for and helps “fill that gap.”

“Some people have a much larger gap,” Vollmar said. “We’re open to any avenue to provide fire survivors our assistance.”

Fire survivors who need help should call 541-414-0318 or see accesshelps.org/firerelief. For more information about the Center for Community Resilience, see accesshelps.org/ccr.

Lebarre-Empson said she checks on her home at least once a week. Seeing it come together brings tears of joy.

“It’s amazing. I actually get a knot in my throat that it’s really happening, finally,” Lebarre-Empson said. “Someday we’re going to be able to walk up those stairs and say, ‘This is ours.’”

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.