Asset Building in Molalla

[Photo: Plaza Los Robles complex]

When the Hacienda Community Development Corporation unveiled plans three years ago to build the 24-unit Plaza Los Robles complex for farm workers and their families in Molalla, Oregon with funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, HUD and others, the news was not well-received.

John Potter, the City's Planning Director remembers "getting angry calls left and right. It was an ugly process," he told The Portland Oregonian.

No wonder. For decades, the phrase "farm worker housing" hasn't brought pretty pictures to the minds of most people. "We always want to think that the labor camps of old don't exist anymore.," said Charlie Harris, project manager for CASA of Oregon, a Newberg-based nonprofit which itself has built more than 1,500 units of farm worker housing over the past 20 years. "They are shockingly close, in fact. You can drive just a few miles out into the country in some places" and "see things that look just like something from the 1920s or '30s."

"That's what we were up against," Hacienda's executive director Pietro Ferrari told The Oregonian. ""In the beginning, the best we hoped for was indifference."

How things have changed. With decent, affordable and "green" housing now available to families that once had to make do living in their cars or a garage, it's no wonder Plaza Los Robles has won national awards. More importantly, it's "turned heads" among the people of Molalla.

That's because the project, said Ferrari, is "not just building housing, but building community." That's obvious from a quick tour, with a playground for the 40 kids who live there, a community learning center and a community garden started by tenants that, says The Oregonian, is seen as a "civic jewel." The "city's fears of farm worker housing," it noted, "have melted "into pride."

"It has become, said City Manager John Atkins, "a real community asset," introducing a lot of Molalla residents to "families who are earning a living, buying groceries and hardware and supporting this town."

In fact, when housing developers come to town looking for sites, city officials "routinely suggest" a drive by the complex as "a perfect example," said planning director Potter, "of the sorts of projects we'd like to see more of here." In the end, he commented, "people were amazed by what was actually created."

Content Archived: August 16, 2011