Arizona Copper Boom Creates Housing Crunch

From an overlook above it, the Morenci open-pit copper mine in southeastern Arizona is mind-boggling — a canyon carved not by erosion, but by earth movers with shovels the size of a two-car garage.

Phelps-Dodge, which owns the mine, says more copper comes from here than any other mine in North America. In the last couple of years, the company has hired thousands of miners and construction workers. And Phelps-Dodge spokesman Ken Vaughn says it's having a hard time hiring more.

"We have more than 600 positions to fill right now," Vaughn said. "And the labor market in that part of the state, in Graham and Greenlee counties, is very tight right now."

So the company is reaching out beyond southeastern Arizona to find miners to fill jobs that start at $14 an hour. But there is just not enough housing for all the new workers.

Some miners are actually living in their own tents. So Phelps-Dodge recently bough what is supposed to be temporary housing: 100 travel trailers.

About half the trailers sit on a gravel lot in Clifton, a couple of miles below the Morenci mine. These are the kind of trailers you pull behind a pickup truck for a week at the lake. But Christopher Hancock has been living in his since April, with air conditioning and fans going full blast.

"Well, it's cramped," Hancock admits. "It gets pretty stressful sometimes being so close to everybody. I got my wife and two teenage boys living here."

Two adults and two teenagers jammed in a 30-foot trailer for four months sounds like the plot of a bad movie. And Hancock's wife, Elizabeth McFate, says it feels like one.

"Everyone's starting to get a little frustrated and edgy," she says. "Working long hours and they come home and they can't rest because their cooler froze up or the kids..."

Plus, there's no running water. A truck comes every day to fill the trailer's tank, providing barely enough water for everyone to have a shower.

A few trailers away from Hancock's, Marilyn Bowen says her trailer is OK. But she used to drive long-haul trucks.

"I've lived in smaller quarters," she says, but admits "I wouldn't live here if I had children and a husband. There's no way."

"It's not the ideal situation," Phelps-Dodge spokesman Vaughn concedes. But he points out that at least the trailers are rent-free.

"We're just simply trying to make as many options available to allow employees to take advantage of the job opportunities that we have," Vaughn says.

Phelps-Dodge is building homes as fast as it can up the hill from Clifton in Morenci. And developers are building in Safford, a 45-minute drive away.

Families in the trailers are on waiting lists to move into permanent housing. But no one seems to know exactly when that will happen.

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