Fire Victim Housing : A progress report

By Jim Teece
Publisher - Southern Oregon Business Journal

It has been nearly seven months since the wildfires of 2020 devastated Oregon with over 2,500 homes lost just in Southern Oregon. I noticed that the FEMA  trailers that were parked at the Jackson County Expo, that have been there for months waiting for spots to be deployed, were gone one day as I drove by on the way to visit my mother in Roseburg. 

My brain told me that was good news. People were getting homes for the long rebuild process but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if that were true. 

The fires burned out all the underbrush along both sides of the freeway between Ashland and Medford and you can now see scores of camps setup by the homeless. We see them, but we don’t see the fire victims living in a motel, waiting. 

We had a People’s Bank Foundation meeting to discuss the progress of our commitment of over $1.25 Million in funding for fire victim housing and realized that we didn’t know what the current state of the rebuild was. So I volunteered to find out what I could and report back. 

I spoke at length with many people involved in the restoration process over the next 2 days.

First I spoke with Oregon’s State Representative Pam Marsh. I reached out to her right after our meeting, I like to start at the top. We were able to meet that day because she had a cancellation. She is always great about being accessible. Especially when I told her that I will talk to her about broadband for the Applegate if she can talk to me about fire victim housing relief. I watched enough West Wing to know how politicians work 😉 .

She explained to me everything she knew about current efforts at the state, which was a lot. The state of Oregon took over for Red Cross to pay for Hotels and the feeding of the victims that had no homes. There are still 782 individuals staying in 22 hotel and motel rooms. This money will run out by the end of June and the legislature is looking for ways to extend this or find another solution. They also passed an emergency relief bill for $65 Million to buy old distressed motels around the state to help victims of fire and covid and $35 Million of that, was earmarked for the 8 counties hit by the fires. The “Turnkey Project” purchased the first hotel in February, a Super 8 in Ashland and it will support up to 60 people when it is up and running. She also told me that she is very excited about the possibilities of what Fortify Holdings is doing. 

Fortify Holdings is a private firm based out of Portland that buys distressed hotels and motels and upgrades them into retro chic studio apartments for areas that have housing shortages, especially for the workforce. Medford showed up on their radar and in 2020 they bought 3 of them. 

The next day I spoke with Steve Erb, Chief Strategy Officer of People’s Bank about an unrelated (I thought) topic. The bank just opened a new branch in a new building they built in Klamath Falls (See page 22) and he was excited that they added 3 apartments to the building creating a mixed use space. His desire to provide workforce housing for the medical community and National Air Guard base officials that were stationed for 1 year or so in Klamath planted a seed in my head and I went on to my next zoom call.

I had a fantastic call with Jason Elzy – Executive Director of the Housing Authority Jackson County. He explained to me the work he has been doing for the last 22 years and how he has been accelerating the process where possible to build affordable homes for those displaced by the fires. He isn’t focused on the temporary homes, or pallet homes or tiny homes. He focuses on homes that will last at least 60 years and you would be proud of owning and living in. 

He explained to me that they normally complete 50 to 100 units a year and have a 5 year pipeline. He just spent 12 months completing a project in Grants Pass and has received $25 Million in state funding to accelerate the process in the Rogue Valley. The plan is to spend $15MM on land acquisition and $10MM to jump start development. The rest of the money will come from 4 to 9% tax credits purchased by companies in a highly competitive market. Many of the credits are purchased by banks. So another inter-connecting seed was planted in my head. 

I left the call feeling very good about the work he and his team are doing and saw that they have a plan in place to go as fast as they can, but I was also realizing  that the scope of the rebuild is huge and going in several directions at the same time. 

I then had a Zoom call with Tom Humphrey from the City of Central Point. He has been on loan to the Jackson County Emergency Operations Center from the city since late October and spearheads the Regional Wildfire Housing Taskforce and helps with the coordination of all the government entities. He shared with me in detail what everyone was doing and as he mentioned names, I emailed them to ask for more details. Every single person responded to me and setup immediate appointments for follow up zoom calls. 

Tom told me that his job was to carry water for FEMA. He also shared with me his excitement for the Fortify Holdings projects and how they were moving many pieces in order to solve the puzzle. He was under a lot of pressure to find solutions for everyone in hotels by June 30th of this year not only because that is when the state money will run out, but that is also when he officially retires full time. 

I started drawing circles representing each project and lines connecting them. The drawing got very busy and complicated and my head was swimming in all the details required for each project to keep moving forward. 

Tom reminded me that the Peoples Bank Foundation helped fund the start of the Talent Gateway project by saying we should all be thankful for the bank and its employees. I agree. 

My last zoom of the day was with Kathy Bryon, Executive Director of the Gordon Elwood Foundation. She has been working hard to try to herd cats along this complicated process. She has been hosting sometimes weekly zooms with many funding sources in the state so that they can learn and share information with each other and learn from the teams rebuilding in Paradise, California and elsewhere. Kathy had just returned from a tour of a potential large hotel that could house the non FEMA supported families. The Migrant Agricultural Workforce. The LatinX community. She was very excited about what she saw. If they can get the funding to happen and all parties to agree this, then a 150 room hotel could be upgraded to support multiple families living in a community space with all the services they need from education, health care, meals and social support under one roof. 

My brain struggled all night while I slept to find a way to understand all these moving parts and how they fit together. 

The first zoom meeting the next morning, put it all together for me. I spoke at length with John Vial, the Jackson County Roads & Parks Director and County Emergency Management Director. I have worked with John for years through my board involvement at the expo and I have always enjoyed his leadership skills. He works behind the scenes and is able to manage very large projects with thousands of moving parts. We are lucky to have him here. 

When I expressed my need to understand the big picture, he leaned into the camera and explained it to me clearly. 

There are 4 distinct populations of people affected by the fires. 

The first population is made up of mostly homeowners, of stick-built homes, with insurance and the ability to be self supported. 

The second population is made up of people that are under insured or not insured and need FEMA and State assistance. 

The third population is made up of “the unknown people”. People that were almost homeless, couch surfing or sleeping in cars in friends garages. People that needed a safe place to sleep so that they could get back on their feet. They are able to access support from the State of Oregon for temporary housing and feeding, but getting a good number on who they are and where they are is very evasive at any given time.

The fourth population is made up of not eligible for FEMA workers. The migrant farm workers which tend to be made up mostly of the LatinX community. They tend to not trust the government and stay away from any government run service for obvious reasons. 

And then he laid out the numbers for me for only population group 2. 

There are 220 Families (1 to 10 per family) Eligible for FEMA and Asking for Support.

91 Families already found housing (RVs or Trailers in RV Parks and Group Sites) but there are 130 Families still waiting for a place to live. So that means the state is paying for 782 individuals to stay in 22 motels and hotels and at the end of June that money runs out. 

Is your head spinning yet? Mine was. 

But FEMA has a plan and it looks like it’s a good one. 

For the first time FEMA did something completely different.

They told the mobile home parks that burned completely down in the fire that they would clean them up and restore them first if they committed to placing FEMA trailers and let the families live there for at least 18 months. There are 3 trailer parks that took the offer and they are nearing cleanup completion. 

FEMA will then put those trailers in place and get those families out of the motels. This gives the mobile home park income for 18 months paid for by the government and these people a home while the long term housing gets built. 

It will take years to get every home back and there are 3 phases of the recovery. The immediate is the phase we are in now. Finding shelter for families in hotels and motels while we get the intermediate in place. The FEMA trailer serves as intermediate housing that can be used until permanent housing or long term housing can be rebuilt. 

FEMA also has backup plans in place, in case there are issues with the restoration of the trailer parks. These projects will work but require infrastructure to be put in place to support the trailers. Some of the neighbors of each backup site are voicing concerns about it, but in the end, it’s an emergency use and I think they will happen. I like seeing that FEMA has backup plans in place. 

But there are other issues as well. Some of the people lived in low rent trailer parks in 40 year old trailers. Today’s trailers are over $100,000 and for many, if not most, this is out of reach. Many are retired and living on a fixed income. 

Southern Oregon was already suffering from an incredibly low inventory of housing before the fires. Affordable, Low Income and Workforce housing shortages were already at unsustainable levels, driving rents through the roof. 

This is why Fortify Holdings projects are important. They bought and are upgrading the 3 motel properties into affordable workforce housing via studio apartments with kitchenettes. 

I ended the call with John very happy to have him here in the valley. His passion and commitment for all populations came up several times during our call. He is working hard to help everyone working on these issues for all populations. No one is left out. No one is forgotten about. I let him know that I am very thankful for his leadership and hung up.

John cleared it up for me so well, that I now saw how big and complicated of an issue this was. I think John’s largest challenge is that there isn’t one party in charge and there isn’t anyone in place yet to “project manage” all of the efforts. 

I ended this process of learning and documenting with a pleasant zoom call with Ziad Elsahili – President of Fortify Holdings. I already researched everything I could about them online so I didn’t really need the call, but it was nice to put a face to the name. His company was mentioned by every single person I spoke with related to the fire victims. 

The company bought the motels to address the workforce housing issue we have here and it just happened to coincide with the surge of need for housing because of the fires. He has been working with all the government agencies to make sure his company can help where they can. 

We spoke mostly “off-the-record” but when I asked him for a quote to include in my story, he sent me this. 

“The housing shortage created by the wildfires is crisis for local families and communities. We specialize in quickly converting and improving older motels into housing that is practical and affordable. We look forward to working with non-profit and government housing providers to be part of the housing solution for Southern Oregon. “

I hung up with Ziad feeling really good about the work his company is doing and thankful for their commitment to our community. 

I think the clear take away is that there are people and families still struggling to get housed and supported but there are government agencies, non-profits and for-profits working together to find solutions as soon as possible. They are working as hard as they can and as fast as they can, to get to the long term phase of the process and we, as a business community, need to continue to step up and offer support and assistance every way we can. 

On a final note, I have been working on small projects around workforce housing development prior to the fires and after realizing the scope of the fire impact on the need for more workforce housing and seeing home prices skyrocket (on a recent trip to Bend, I saw tract homes that were selling for over $1 Million) and learning what I learned from this exercise, it made me realize that we have a bigger problem than I initially  thought. 

As employers and small business owners and humans that live in the communities we serve, we need to double down on efforts to find long term solutions on developing workforce housing. 

I will be spending more space and time in the journal on this topic.  

Thank you to everyone that gave me time and knowledge for this article. I’ll circle back periodically to update efforts and post progress. 

Where are those missing FEMA trailers you ask? 

They were taken to Reedsport for storage with a commitment to bring them back when needed. 

I wish they were still here, so that everyone can see how many families are still waiting for a home. 

6 Comments

  1. Ann Dowdy on April 5, 2021 at 6:58 pm

    Jim, those trailers are all lined up, under security and in a new fenced in area in Gardiner. I passed it last week and wondered why they were there. Ann Dowdy

  2. Jean Work on April 6, 2021 at 8:57 am

    Excellent report Jim. I had no idea so many groups were working on providing solutions to our housing dilemma. So much needs to be done and will be an ongoing effort for years to come. We are lucky to have you involved in finding solutions.
    Jean Work

  3. Linda Clark on April 6, 2021 at 12:14 pm

    Great article. My family’s home burned on September 8th. Since then I have been in rentals and motels. Moving 5 times is a nightmare. The rentals are outrageously priced. Why are they allowed to Charge over $1500 up for 1 and 2 bedroom apartments???? I have some relocation funds but not enough at these exorbitant prices. They are criminal! I’m retired! Even when I was employed I could not afforded these outrageous prices. Sad!

  4. Rain Cortez on April 7, 2021 at 5:36 pm

    I don’t understand how small fixed income seniors , will buy trailers over 100,000.00. For 18 months the Govt will pay their rent. Then what? Most of them were in trailers over 50 years old and barley getting by. At the end of 18 months, they will have rent, trailer payment, utilities, food ,etc. Their checks aren’t that big, I know! But for the Grace of God , I would be one of them, but God changed the wind direction just when I thought my house would burn down. Moving elderly people isn’t easy on them. I am in surgical recovery this last 1 1/2 years and it’s extremely difficult. Praise God my church family has been amazing Angels. TCF church also housed and fed the fire fighters up on Hwy 62. Prayers for the elderly families.

  5. Karen Wagoner on April 7, 2021 at 7:08 pm

    Utilizing motels for housing and turning them into studio apartments with kitchens would work well for single people or couples but totally inadequate for a family. I’m concerned about the farm workers and Latin X population and what type of affordable housing can be provided for them.

  6. Sherry Franzen on April 12, 2021 at 10:44 pm

    Tiny houses on wheels (THOWs) should be seriously considered for those who want them, as their mobility is practical, especially in today’s world. THOWs will allow for choosing one’s optimal location or, even setup on one’s own land. If another fire is heading our way, being able to tow your house away (or paying someone to do that) keeps your house and possessions safe. (I strongly suggest acting as soon as you suspect a fire is on its way.) The counties’ and state’s regulations need to change so people can live legally in a THOW without paying exhorbitant rents, or being forced into living in metal trailers that may be substandard. Moisture in a metal “trailer” can cause health problems. Mobile homes are not truly *mobile*. I think a town, such as Blue River, Oregon (heavily burned) could benefit from a Tiny House Community.

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