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Pasco farm workers' affordable housing is 'green'

By Virginia de Leon

Before Catholic Charities Spokane built the 45-unit Tepeyac Haven last fall, the poorest of the poor in Pasco had nowhere decent to live.

welder
Annie Smart of St. Ambrose in Lind welded a crucifix for the dedication of the housing complex.

Not only is Tepeyac providing much needed housing, but also it is built to specifications of green building.

Most farm workers and their families are crammed together in dismal conditions—in rusty trailers with shattered windows; in cold, cinder-block buildings; in basement apartments where the walls had turned black with mold, or in decrepit shacks that endangered their children’s health and welfare.

Because they shared their living spaces with other families, they often cooked and ate their meals in the same room where they slept.

“People who are vulnerable and at risk need a beautiful place to live,” said Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities Spokane, a social service organization that helps people of all religious faiths in the 13 counties of Eastern Washington.

“The number one thing we could do for farm workers in the area is to provide them housing so that they can leave migrant camps and live somewhere safe and with human dignity,” he said.

Guided by its mission to “provide help and create hope” for the poor and others in need, Catholic Charities Spokane built Tepeyac Haven—a 45-unit housing complex for farm workers and their families.

Along with being one of the most modern, attractive apartment complexes in the Tri-Cities, the $8 million project is the first affordable-housing development in the United States to receive a Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) designation for green buildings under the LEED for Homes category.

Tepeyac Haven also was used as a national case study at the U.S. Green Building Council’s International Conference and Expo last November. Now, experts in sustainable building consider it a model for other affordable housing projects across the country.

Most families who have moved into Tepeyac Haven are from Michoacan, Jalisco and other provinces of Mexico, said Alicia Toledo, Tepeyac’s manager. Some were so poor that they brought only boxes of clothing and plastic furniture when they moved in last October.

They were just grateful to find somewhere affordable, decent and pleasant to live, she said.

“Most lived in places that were never repaired,” Alicia explained. “People looked down on them because they are farm workers, so they didn’t treat them well.”

Tepeyac Haven is the second housing complex in Eastern Washington created for farm workers by Catholic Charities Spokane. 

It’s modeled after La Morada en el Desierto, which was built four years ago in Othello.

Along with their pastor, the Rev. Miguel Mejia, parishioners at Othello’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church asked Catholic Charities if the nonprofit would help the poorest among them who toil in the fields but make so little money they couldn’t afford to move out of the labor camps.

After many meetings, much research and paperwork, Catholic Charities embarked on a tax-credit project that led to La Morada, a 27-unit complex designed for low-income families who work in agriculture.

Also known as “Desert Haven,” the $2.8 million facility features two-, three- and four-bedroom duplex-style apartments surrounded by grass, trees and flowering plants. Residents share a common area that includes park benches and a playground.

For families who have lived in poverty throughout their life, La Morada has become a haven, they said, and a fulfillment of the American dream.

The creation of the affordable farm-worker housing at La Morada in Othello inspired Monsignor Pedro Ramirez and parishioners at St. Patrick’s in Pasco to ask Catholic Charities to build a similar housing project for agricultural workers in the Tri-Cities.

Like Othello, the Tri-Cities area is home to thousands of field workers who have no access to health care, education and other opportunities to help lift them out of poverty.

Last October—three years after collaboration between St. Patrick’s and Catholic Charities—Pasco celebrated the opening of Tepeyac Haven. 

Bishop William Skylstad of the Catholic Diocese of Spokane came to lead the dedication and blessing.

Parishioners suggested the name, “Tepeyac,” in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In 1531 on Tepeyac Hill in the outskirts of Mexico City, the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to Juan Diego.

“Everybody’s happy here,” Alicia said. “The women love having washers and dryers. The children have two playgrounds. People like their apartments.”

Tepeyac Haven has the same architectural design as Desert Haven.

The project, however, goes beyond the Othello complex in using energy-efficient construction materials, such as high-tech foam insulation blown into the walls and installing energy efficient washers, dryers and other appliances.

Zeck Butler Architects and others involved in the design and construction chose building materials that not only were durable and environmentally friendly but also came from local sources.

“Tepeyac Haven’s use of LEED accredited professionals ensured that those involved in the design and building process were able to make the smartest, greenest, most inexpensive choices available,” according to the U.S. Green Building Council.

The complex is near schools, a bus stop and a shopping area—a convenience for families who don’t own a car, said Alicia.

Rent at the new facility also remains affordable despite rising prices in the Tri-Cities.

According to 2008 statistics from ApartmentRatings.com, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the Tri-Cities is $613 and $686 for one with two bedrooms.

At Tepeyac Haven, families pay $443 for a two-bedroom apartment; $530 for three bedrooms, and $535 for four bedrooms.

To lease an apartment at Tepeyac, residents must work in agriculture and also earn less than 40 percent of the median income for families in the cities of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland.

“It’s among the nicest rental apartments in the Tri-Cities,” said Rob. “The people who live there are folks who have come to the U.S. for a better life for themselves and their children. They deserve a nice place to live.”

Catholic Charities is now considering the construction of another farm-worker housing complex in Pasco.

Although it’s still in the planning stages, more than 100 families already have put their names on a waiting list, he said.

For information, call Catholic Charities Spokane at 358-4259 or Tepeyac Haven in Pasco at 545-8558.

June 2008 © The Fig Tree