Oregon Hotels Are Housing Wildfire Survivors

The couple passed around a phone with pictures of their former home, a four-bedroom house that held them and their son’s family of three. Lanette Martin called it her “Shangri-la.” For five years, they were caretakers of the 40-acre property, where their power came from solar panels and their water came from mountain springs. In exchange, the Martins—who live on a fixed income—paid just $700 per month in rent. Now, the couple can’t find even a studio apartment for that price: In 2020, rents and home values skyrocketed amid high demand driven by the fires and an influx of out-of-state arrivals during the pandemic. The Martins lived in several friends’ homes after the fires, but had to leave the latest one when it sold in less than 24 hours—a typical occurrence nowadays in Jackson County, where Medford is located.

From 2013 to 2017, nearly a third of Jackson County residents were severely rent-burdened, spending more than 50 percent of their monthly income on rent, according to Oregon Housing and Community Services. And that was before the September 2020 wildfires exacerbated the county’s already acute affordable-housing shortage. Of the nearly 2,500 homes destroyed in Jackson County, 60 percent were mobile homes.

The Martins lacked renter’s insurance and hadn’t applied for FEMA assistance. Their son’s family, however, now lives in a FEMA trailer, one of about a hundred Jackson County households the agency is housing; another hundred are on its waitlist. The state is providing hotel rooms and RVs to an additional 765 Jackson County fire survivors.

As the Martins sorted their few belongings into their room at the Redwood Inn, their 7-year-old dog, Keyeva, stretched out on the bed. Keyeva had made it out of the fire, but the Martins’ five chickens died in their coop, and their cat was nowhere to be found. Living in the Redwood Inn rent-free means they can save up for a down payment on a house, the Martins explained. “We’re not looking for a handout,” Steve Martin says. “We’re just looking for a hand.”

A few days later, the aroma of pork tacos and homemade salsa filled the air of an upstairs motel room at the Redwood Inn. Alvarez and her family were taking advantage of their room’s kitchenette; Rogue Retreat had spent extra time preparing units that already had kitchenettes to accommodate people with specific dietary or medical needs. Lanette Martin has type 2 diabetes, and two of Alvarez’s three children have hemophilia, a bleeding disorder.

After they moved in, one of Alvarez’s first tasks was to give her 10-year-old son, Anthony Gonzalez, the weekly injection that helps his blood clot properly. Alvarez and her children moved from California to Oregon last year, drawn by the state’s good public schools and booming hemp industry. But the wildfires burned many of the region’s farms, and Alvarez has had trouble finding jobs trimming hemp.

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