As gentrification transforms some towns across the nation, communities are forced to ask difficult questions. Can the tide of rising housing costs threatening to wash locals away be stemmed? Can an affordable cost of living be a part of community planning? And, how invested should a city be in doing so?
The town of Talent is no exception. A small community of 6,500 in southern Oregon, Talent has one of the highest-priced housing markets in the region combined with the lowest median incomes. In 2019, to combat this disparity, Talent initiated plans for their Gateway Project, an affordable housing complex seated on public land near the center of town.
When the Alameda Fire blazed along Talent’s old highway 99 in September of 2020, 18 mobile home parks along with manufactured and low-income housing burned to the ground, leaving thousands of people homeless. The city’s most vulnerable population – seniors, Latinx, and low-income families living on the precipice of financial despair—had mere minutes to flee with little more than their lives. They escaped to nearby hotels, crashed on couches of friends, or lived in their cars. Most of these fire victims were ineligible for FEMA support to rebuild as many had purchased older trailers outright or were renters who didn’t meet FEMA’s status requirements.
It’s still unclear how many people lost their homes, as many feared reporting their status to FEMA. When Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood watched the hotel she managed overflow with evacuees, she felt that this event could hurl families already on the economic edge into hopelessness.
Three days after the fire, a pastor from a nearby town organized a meeting for leaders from fire-struck communities.
“In addition to town leaders, there were teachers and parents from our school district,” Ayers-Flood said. “In that moment, we realized it wasn’t just our towns that were impacted. With so many youth gone, our school district was also in peril. That meeting woke us up. We then held a Town Hall meeting in Talent. The community lined up to say, again and again, we need to bring our community home. They gave us a mandate. We want our community whole again.”
Jon Legarza, the executive director of the Urban Renewal Agency of Talent, was part of crafting the plan to bring families home. “When you look at how many units FEMA actually stood up, compared to how many units were lost, it’s a very small percentage. We have to find ways to recover better,” he said. “This is the real crisis we all need to be talking about,” Mayor Ayers-Flood agreed. “Our most vulnerable communities are those most greatly impacted by climate chaos. This fire illustrated that we are woefully unprepared to rescue everybody. We need to understand this is now the way it’s going to be. We need to stand with each other.”
City leadership swiftly passed an ordinance guaranteeing mobile home zoning would remain mobile home zoning and researched ways to take advantage of Oregon’s new Senate Bill 8 reframing commercial zoning to include affordable housing.
While the city protected its resources, the Urban Renewal Agency of Talent worked alongside community partners revising the Gateway Project’s design by utilizing emergency funding to provide mobile, transitional housing. “We were fortunate,” said Ayers-Flood. “The land had been purchased, infrastructure had been designed and nonprofit contractors were submitting bids. Since it was publicly owned, we had the flexibility of how it was to be used. Most towns, especially rural ones, don’t have these types of resources.”
Legarza noted that beyond the efforts of Talent’s leadership, the state’s support in the form of “a significant amount of funding along with 53 brand-new 32-foot Bunkhouse Travel Trailers to provide the transitional housing needed,” was crucially important.
“Towns like Talent give us hope,” said Talent’s state Representative Pam March. “Sadly, though, far too few cities have this opportunity for funding or capacity. It’s time we look at new technologies outside the box of ‘swinging hammers’ and consider alternatives like purchasing old hotels and creating modular homes and 3D-printed housing.”
As governmental bodies considered future solutions, Talent’s leadership put their shoulder to the wheel, determined to provide places for families to come home to. The only criteria for the Gateway Project were to house families with children who had needs unmet by FEMA. In June of 2020, nine months after the fire, the city broke ground. In October, the first 23 trailers will be positioned on the utility infrastructure where permanent housing will eventually stand.
A key component of Gateway’s success was the city’s public art mural project, themed “We Are Stronger Together.” To maximize community engagement, Talent’s Public Art Committee sent out a call for submissions spotlighting where the murals would be hung. They received hundreds of entries. Partnering with Talent Maker City and Phoenix School District, selected art was then transferred onto 4’ x 6’ panels during summer teen workshops and staged to be displayed along highway 99 at the entry of the housing project.
“They are more than pretty murals,” said Talent Maker City board member Laura A. Quintero Anton. “We want the message to be one of healing, saying in many languages, images, and whatever way we can, that all are welcome, regardless of who you are. We are strong, and we are together.”
“We know this is a long haul,” said Ayers-Flood. “Getting people home is just the first step. Once they are back, we’ll address permanent housing. For the moment though, we are committed to not letting anyone get lost because they couldn’t fit under the FEMA umbrella. We were not going to let people be spit out of the survival game. The Gateway Project represents our insistence that we can’t let that happen, especially when we have the resources to make different choices to live in an affordable, diverse, and welcoming community.”