Striving to meet housing needs
"It's all about unity."
Claudia Cantu pretty much summed up the layout and features of Woodburn's recently opened Colonia Unidad Apartments.
It's in the name, and it's in the blueprint as well.
Cantu, who is the housing manager for Farmworker Housing Development Corporation of Woodburn, was showing the features of the city's newest housing complex and how they work together – and promote unity.
FHDC worked with other partners, including the city of Woodburn and Marion County, to realize these spiffy new digs – which will add a sliver of help toward alleviating the pervasive housing shortage in this region and statewide.
A handful of toddlers played on the complex centerpiece playground equipment with grandma close by as Cantu pointed to the popular feature, then to the adjacent community meeting room, kitchen and laundry. Flanking the playground are a series raised gardening beds, five per side. There are also picnic stations, while due south of the playground and opposite the community rooms is an open green space with a freshly-sodded natural turf lawn.
"We have the big playground next to the community room so people can watch their kids," Cantu said. "Same thing with the laundry room, and all the windows from the units look out into the center as well."
The green space, which is afforded slices of shade from some mature fir trees lining Alexandra Avenue near its intersection with Park Avenue, is a space where developers envision youngsters engaging in impromptu soccer clashes. Older youth can head across the street and kick the ball around nearby Legion Park.
The green space will also be the site of the complexes' grand opening celebration, which takes place from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11.
"The reason we are holding the open house in the evening is for the families; most people will be off work and able to come," Cantu said, again stressing the unity concept.
Meeting housing needs
Work on Colonia Unidad wrapped up on schedule, August 28. Families began moving in around September 11.
The complex consists of 44 units, 1, 2 and 3 bedrooms, 50% of which are designated for farm-working families, and the other half are for low-income families. Cantu said the reason for the split is that members of farm-working families often find work in another industry. If the complex was 100% dedicated to farm workers, finding new work could dictate that a family must also immediately find a new home.
FHDC sports the mission statement of: "Developing farmworker leadership for stronger and more secure families and communities through affordable housing, social services, education, and economic development."
Colonia Unidad serves as a paragon to that end.
"At FHDC we've consistently had a waiting list of over 100 families, with not much turnover," Cantu described the affordable housing challenges. "We finished this August 28, on schedule, and all 44 units are assigned to a tenant already. That just shows how significant the need for affordable housing is in this area."
The area's need is but a microcosm of a larger, statewide phenomenon.
Oregon Center for Public Policy spokesman Juan Carlos OrdÓñez noted that half of all renters in Oregon spend over 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities.
In "The epicenter of Oregon's housing crisis" published in March, 2018, OrdÓñez noted that the number of households labeled as "cost-burdened" in 2016 stood at 298,000, more than the total number of households in Portland.
"The numbers get worse when you dig deeper," OrdÓñez wrote. "A quarter of all renters in Oregon are spending more than half of their income on housing. When housing costs drain so much income, families often must make agonizing choices, such as skipping meals or visits to the doctor.
"In the worst cases, eviction and homelessness follow — with devastating consequences for families, especially children."
Statewide housing issues, the severest of which is homelessness, have edged into the foreground of social-problem discussions. Those discussions frequently point to a construction drought engendered by the great recession that emerged more than a decade ago, driving the problem that exists today.
The issue has drawn considerable debate and attempts to address it both at macro and micro levels. This past spring Oregon became the first state in the U.S. to implement a statewide rent-control policy.
Critics say rent-control is no panacea to the housing epidemic, although it is a start.
Local problem solvers say attention to the issue begins at home, and Colonia Unidad is an example of that.
"The city of Woodburn has been a great partner for us in making this happen," Cantu said. "They've been great partners in the development, the mural in the meetings – they've helped keep the process going without (interruptions)."
FHDC's stated core purpose is "Building communities and community assets so working people can attain equity and self-determination." Colonia Unidad underscores that quest in the Woodburn area.
The nonprofit's presence to date has been primarily in Marion and Polk counties, but plans are for it to extend into Linn County as a three-phase workforce housing project consisting of 130 units is in the works.
With mature firs on its south side and vivid exterior tones throughout, Colonia Unidad is a striking site by itself. But the view from Park Avenue postures salient features in two murals that bookend a walkway linking the central playground area.
The mural painter, Hector H Hernandez of Portland, also underscored the unity concept in his work. He noted that the artwork's aspects -- trees forming hands, a graduating student on each side and butterflies – collaborate to represent respectively structure, academic achievement and transition.
"This symmetrical composition of the tree also creates a triumphal arch in which a butterfly is placed at the top of the arch as a way to unify and crown the academic achievements," Hernandez noted. "A woman on the right side and a man on the left side of the two panel mural represent achievement and success.
"It is pertinent to mention that this mural is located near Woodburn High School, and by including these images, the mural recognized the highest rate of graduation and educational achievements of the youth of the city of Woodburn in general, but in particular the success of Woodburn High School," he added.
What: Colonia Unidad Benefit & Grand Opening
When: 5:30 8:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11
Where: Colonia Unidad, 1750 Park Ave., Woodburn
RSVP: Attendees should sign up in advance by visiting the Colonia Unidad Benefit & Grand Opening page on Eventbrite website -- https://bit.ly/2kICegx
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