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Health organization puts $500,000 toward post-fire recovery

Recognizing the importance of housing for good health, a local provider of Oregon Health Plan benefits has committed $500,000 for fire relief and affordable housing support.

Jackson Care Connect has set aside $400,000 to support community groups providing direct fire relief and recovery support in the wake of September’s devastating Almeda and South Obenchain fires. Some of that help for fire survivors includes housing assistance.

Jackson Care Connect officials said they are reaching out to organizations that serve Hispanic, low-income and elderly people — groups that were particularly hard-hit by the fires.

The Almeda fire damaged or destroyed more than 2,600 homes, primarily in Phoenix and Talent. The South Obenchain fire that burned near Butte Falls and Shady Cove destroyed more than 30 homes.

The housing market in Southern Oregon was already tight before the fires, with a vacancy rate of about 1.5%, according to Jackson Care Connect.

The Almeda fire destroyed more than 1,500 manufactured and mobile homes, said Jason Elzy, executive director of the Housing Authority of Jackson County.

“Those were a natural form of affordable housing,” he said.

Jackson Care Connect is donating $50,000 and Energy Trust of Oregon is giving $25,000 to fund a new position at the Housing Authority dedicated to the development of manufactured homes, Elzy said.

The person will look for federal and state grants, charitable donations and other sources of funding to help boost the stock of manufactured homes. Options also include looking at how to creatively redevelop burned manufactured home parks to increase affordable housing, plus building in new locations, Elzy said.

Building new apartment complexes could be another way to increase housing, he said.

“We know housing stabilizes lives,” Elzy said. “We want to get out of the gate as quickly as possible.”

The need for housing has long outstripped the number of new homes being built, either by private builders or government agencies, he said.

No housing types are being built in sufficient quantities to keep up with demand, whether that’s apartment buildings or single-family houses, he said.

“We were already in a housing crisis prior to so many homes being lost in the fire. The fire compounds the lack of housing in the valley,” Elzy said.

The Housing Authority is the largest provider of affordable housing in Southern Oregon.

It develops 50 to 100 housing units in an average year, but that was barely making a dent in the need, Elzy said.

The wait list for housing averages 4,000 to 5,000 households, he said.

In addition to the money for community groups helping fire survivors and support for the new position at the Housing Authority, Jackson Care Connect is providing $50,000 in seed money to start a new fund dedicated to finding affordable housing solutions.

“Many of our members lost homes to this urban fire,” says Jackson Care Connect Executive Director Jennifer Lind. “Getting people connected to safe housing is a health care priority.”

Jackson Care Connect provides Medicaid coverage, primarily through the Oregon Health Plan, to 50,000 members in Jackson County.

Doctors have recognized that most of a person’s health is influenced by factors unrelated to medical care — including income, education and housing.

A plan crafted in 2019 to improve people’s health in Jackson and Josephine counties prioritized three needs, and none were directly related to medical care.

The plan said the top three priorities are safe and affordable housing for everyone, mental health and substance abuse care, and support for children and parents.

The plan was coordinated by the Jefferson Regional Health Alliance and drew on the expertise and experiences of a broad range of people.

With 2021 on the horizon, Jackson Care Connect officials said the organization has committed $200,000 for housing and programs in the coming year.

Past recipients include Rogue Retreat, Columbia Care, Addictions Recovery Center and Options for Helping Residents of Ashland.

To apply or learn more about funding, organizations can contact Samantha Watson at watsons@careoregon.org.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

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