Thursday’s intentional burn at Farm Labor Homes is a symbol of letting the past go, said Heather Dunnagan.
Burn day couldn’t have come soon enough for the internal audit specialist with Walla Walla Housing Authority. “I’ve even offered to light the match a couple of times.”
Farm Labor Homes
A training burn holds symbolism for administrators of the Farm Labor Homes near the state line.
Dunnagan knows better than most what the flames licking upward mean. In the moment, the burning of three four-plex apartment units provided a training opportunity for Walla Walla firefighters.
It is also the first step in getting rid of 15 such buildings, vacated since 2011 when 60 new apartments were constructed by Walla Walla Housing Authority to house about half of the Farm Labor Homes families.
Up in smoke went the graffiti spray painted on walls inside and out, the vandalized rooms, floors now stripped of asbestos tiles, windows shattered with rocks and chunks of wood. Burning away was ravaged siding, doors with gaping holes and plywood nailed over entrances to prevent kids from getting hurt in the empty apartments.
Dunnagan has been at the housing development off Highway 11 nearly every day since the site transitioned from Walla Walla County Housing Authority on May 3, after an agreement was reached that the city’s housing authority has more resources and services to better help residents. Until then, the place was under the Walla Walla County Housing Authority.
While it was not a county entity, Walla Walla County commissioners appointed county housing authority board members.
The 46 acres, widely known as “the labor camp,” has contained living quarters for farm workers since 1948 after it was established for military housing during World War II.
The buildings slated for demolition are part of the complex called Lado Viejo, built in the mid-1970s in a move to replace old duplexes and aging barracks that had been sectioned into apartments.
The state Dunnagan and other employees found the vacated units in was the tip of the iceburg, according to minutes from the May 28 board meeting of Walla Walla Housing Authority.
What came to light was overwhelming, said Renee Rooker, executive director of Walla Walla Housing Authority. For starters, many tenants in the 68 occupied older homes on the land were living with broken deadbolt door locks and appliances that didn’t function properly.
Yet the labor camp’s shop was found to hold more than 60 appliances, including ranges, refrigerators, water heaters, sinks and more, going unused.
Most of that inventory was newer, even as some residents had been forced to cook at a neighbor’s house for lack of a fully functioning stove, Dunnagan and her crew found. Others had refrigerators that failed to keep food properly cool.
There were broken windows and leaking pipes in occupied apartments. Drag racing occurred on the street in front of the development’s homes and Head Start facility. Teens climbed on roofs. Trash cans were dumped all over the community nearly every night. Four-wheelers and dirt bikes were driven over grassy areas.
“Many tenants state they are afraid of individuals identified as gang members,” Dunnagan reported.
A building local youths used as an unofficial meeting place appeared to also double as an auto repair shop; housing authority officials found nine license plates and turned those numbers over to police.
As well, there seems to have been a culture that discouraged residents from reporting problems, perhaps in fear of being evicted, Dunnagan said.
“We had to convince them to report (problems), so we can replace it,” Dunnagan said.
Several threats have been made against the Vado Liedo site coordinator of the older units and his family, “no trespassing” signs have been frequently removed and destroyed and bonfires set in the road in front of the office, she wrote.
Dunnagan found many areas where it was obvious maintenance was not a priority, she said. Her lists includes Farm Labor Home pickup trucks and tractors that had never been serviced, still with original filters and out of hydraulic fluid and oil. Office equipment and the laundry facility suffered similar neglect.
“This has posed many challenges attempting to fix and maintain items that have gone largely ignored for, in many cases, years,” she said in her report.
Metal adding up to about $1,000 was found missing, and bathrooms were smeared with feces. Motor oil was leaking into the ground from barrels in a shed, and weeds overtook many areas.
Then there is the matter of “the big house.”
Sitting atop a knoll on the labor camp property, the large structure dating to the early 1940s was built to hold three separate families, and most recently housed a site manager who chose to resign a few years ago, Dunnagan said on a recent tour.
“A lot of people have asked why we don’t rehab the house,” she said.
A look around answered the question. Every room is filled with the past. Furniture, books, children’s artwork are the higher points of a mess that includes cat feces everywhere, emptied boxes of wine and food left in unplugged refrigerators. In the hallway, a small artificial Christmas tree stands alone. Holes in the lathe-and-plaster walls expose dangling wire and cast-iron plumbing.
“The smells from the house can be detected from outside at over 75 feet away,” Dunnagan said in her report. “This is a definite health hazard, and entry should be limited.”
She has found more than 60 baseboard heaters in the basement. Those that worked went to families living with heaters that were rusted through, inoperable or full of mold.
So far, clean up, repairs and securing property has cost the Walla Walla Housing Authority about $15,000. Some of the cost has been mitigated by Dunnagan’s efforts to sell off scrap metal, salvageable appliances, fixtures, vehicles and farm equipment. She has also removed brass doorknobs and striker plates from the big house for sale to collectors, and traded unusable items for services and staff training.
Keeping the clean up momentum is vital. Construction of Phase 2 of new homes will start in September, Rooker said.
Dunnagan can hardly wait. If one stands on the road dividing the housing development down its center — newer complexes with landscaping and a community building to the north, aging four-plexes to the south — it’s a defining look of the “haves” and “have nots,” she said. “If that was my family living out there like that, I’d want someone to make it better.”
Things are already brighter. Dunnagan’s most recent report says tenants are beginning to request repairs and take advantage of the community garden. Asbestos abatement of the vacant apartments is well under way, a kids’ summer program has healthy enrollment numbers — as does the soccer program — and Walla Walla Housing Authority staff is being greeted by residents instead of viewed with suspicion, she wrote.
As Dunnagen paused to lock doors on the big house, she surveyed the view of the Blue Mountains.
“It will be pretty again,” she said. “We’ll get it there. Out of the ashes, Phase 2 will rise.”
The physical state of Farm Labor Homes, as outlined in last month’s report from Walla Walla Housing Authority, is part of what led the newest board members of the County Housing Authority to seek solutions for the labor camp, noted President Kate Bobrow-Strain.
Decades of neglect and mismanagement could not be reversed with only rental income to pay for it, generated from “way below-market rate rents,” she said. And board members are volunteers, “almost all of whom have full time jobs and other volunteer commitments.”
When she took the lead board position in 2010, the number of changes needed to move forward was overwhelming, Bobrow-Strain said.
“There had been problems at Farm Labor Homes for many, many many years,” she said. “I don’t know what factors came together to create a culture that existed and a lack of accountability. Fundamentally, we are talking about a lack of accountability. No one was paying enough attention. Or if they were, they weren’t doing enough about it.
“That would be reflected in everything, from the physical condition of the units to the professional expertise of staff to the way the board was run to the accounting system.”
After exploring some management options, the board was able to get a strategic plan in place. Eventually, however, members saw they had started too far behind with too few resources to obtain their goals, Bobrow-Strain said.
“It took awhile for our whole board to reach that conclusion, but we did begin talks with Walla Walla Housing Authority summer of 2011,” she said.
Those sessions culminated this spring in the transfer of Farm Labor Home to the city, allowing Walla Walla Housing Authority to obtain funding for 68 new units to replace the remaining old units, she wrote in an email.
“I am confident that (it) will be able to make what was Farm Labor Homes into a model for rural, low-income housing in the Northwest. I feel proud of the work done by the (Walla Walla County Housing Authority) board in getting to a place where attaining that goal is possible.”