All they needed was a sound wall. But why settle for a wall when you might get a lot more?

Such as some brand-new 224 units of affordable housing that are now under construction in Wasco. City leaders deserve kudos for thinking outside the box in accomplishing this.

Let's back up a bit, say some 67 years ago. That's when the Wasco labor camp was built to provide affordable housing for farmworkers. And it's been going strong ever since, operating to this day with swamp coolers instead of air conditioners. Guess AC wasn't around when the camp came to be in 1950.

To say this place has seen better days is an understatment. The site is home to more than 200 families and is located on the city's east side. It's a largely industrial area and residents here don't have easy access to the rest of the city.

Just to their south, residents have a lovely view of giant silos that belong to Savage Coal Services Corporation. No industrial area would be complete without railroad tracks. The BNSF tracks run right nearby the housing complex, posing a hazard to residents who are forced to cross them to get to work, shopping or anywhere else.

It's something that constantly worries residents such as Maria Mercado, who has three daughters who walk to school.

"I always tell them to call me once they cross the tracks," said Mercado, who has lived here for six years. "It worries me that something might happen."

So how did city leaders pull it off? For years, city staff have been working to relocate the labor camp but the problem was money, or lack of it, said Wasco Mayor Tilo Cortez. Last year, the city secured $10 million from an unlikely source.

While others argue over the merits of high-speed rail coming to California, the Wasco City Council saw and took advantage of an oppotunity to get some funding from the High-Speed Rail Authority. The proposed high-speed rail route goes right by the labor camp, and a sound wall was to be constructed to mitigate the noise.

"We thought that instead of HSR using that money on a sound wall, why not see what can be done to better the lives of the labor camp residents?" said the mayor. "With the route being right next to the labor camp, we didn't think that was going to be a good fit."

So the city met with the HSR people and convinced them to provide the $10 million to start the relocation process.

“As part of the high-speed rail’s environmental process, mitigation efforts are made to minimize noise and visibility impacts along the alignment," said rail authority spokesperson Toni Tinoco.

"Instead of constructing a sound wall to separate the housing complex and the high-speed rail tracks, the authority and the City of Wasco agreed to relocate the community that had been separated by railroad tracks from the west part of the city.”

Construction crews began working earlier this year on the new housing complex, located on Poplar Avenue where residents have a much easier access to town. Tons of dirt have been moved, foundations have been built and the sounds of hammers are constant throughout the day.

The units range from one to four bedrooms — and they have AC! Completion date is expected to be in April. Total cost for the new units is just less than $50 million.

Once the city secured the money from HSR, it was able to come up with the rest of the funding from multiple state, federal and local sources.

The old labor camp will be demolished. Generations have lived here. That's why this project is personal for Mayor Cortez.

As a child, he lived there while his parents toiled in the fields. Though he's now the mayor and runs a real estate business, he's never forgotten where he came from.

"These are hard-working families and I'm very proud of the residents who still live here," he said. "The labor camp is just a way to assimilate them into the community and then go on to bigger and better things."

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