Farmworker Housing Receives a Boost
Like many types of affordable housing, farmworker housing has received a substantial boost during the last 15 months thanks to an unprecedented level of state spending. However, the picture for California's agricultural workers is not all bright because the state cash has arrived after many grower-provided housing units have closed. And local opposition to farmworker housing persists, even in communities that are primarily agricultural.
For the 2000-01 fiscal year, the state earmarked $46 million for construction and rehabilitation of farmworker housing — about 10 times more than had ever been budgeted in a single year. Lawmakers also set a baseline of $18 million for future years, although that amount was reduced to $13.9 million in this year's adopted budget. The state did allocate $9.6 million to continue the process of rebuilding all 26 state-owned, seasonal migrant labor camps. Nonprofit agencies and local housing authorities are thankful to receive the money, but everyone involved says that more funding — and more funding sources —are required.
"The need is so great out there," said Pat Dyas, manager of the Joe Serna Jr. Farmworker Housing Grant Program at the Department of Housing and Community Development. "We're doing everything that we can and it's great that we've got more money … but it's really just a drop in the bucket."
Several factors hit farmworkers where they live. When the state began inspecting farmworker housing during the 1970s, some growers closed their labor camps rather than bring them up to code, said Peter Carey, executive director of Self-Help Enterprises in Visalia. A study released earlier this year supports Carey's observation. When asked about factors that discourage farmers from providing employee housing, about 70% of farmers who have closed their employee facilities cited "government requirements." That was an even greater factor than the cost of development. (The survey, "Operation of Farm Labor Housing in California," was conducted by the California Coalition for Rural Housing, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state Department of Housing and Community Development, and University of California, Davis.)
At the same time growers were shuttering employee housing units, farmworkers were increasingly signing on with labor contractors. Thus, field hand and packing house employees lost their direct connection to farm owners and managers. During most of the 1990s, the provision of farmworker housing disappeared from the political radar screen.
However, the election of Cruz Bustamante as lieutenant governor in 1998 and the flexing of muscle by the Legislature's growing Latino Caucus have helped return attention to the issue. In 1999, the Legislature approved a bill requiring local housing elements to identify adequate sites for farmworker housing. Additionally, some farmers, especially in the wine growing regions of Napa and Sonoma counties, have taken a more active role in providing shelter for their workers.
All of these political and labor developments occurred while farmworkers became less migratory. Solid demographic information on California farmworkers is scant, but many experts say the age of migrant families has largely ended. Now, most families settle into communities. Migrant workers who chase the harvest are males in their teens through early 30s who are either single or who support a family in California, Mexico or Central America.
Wine country workers
In Sonoma County, growers by right can build farmworker housing on agricultural parcels of at least 10 acres. Projects that meet basic criteria do not require use permits and are supposed to receive administrative approval within one week, according to planners. The growers must pay for building permits, but the county waives all impact fees.
This streamlined system has eliminated growers' excuses, said Bob Anderson, of the United Winegrowers of Sonoma County. Growers have built about 25 projects under these rules, according to Anderson. Some of the residences are essentially bunkhouses that accommodate from 18 to 38 single men apiece. The structures appear to be large barns, often well off the road and surrounded by vineyards. Growers fund the projects and charge residents only for utilities and laundry facilities. One grower has built four-plexes for families.
The advantage of offering such accommodations is that labor crews remain in place for longer periods, Anderson said. The typical resident of these grower-provided accommodations stays for 10 months.
In neighboring Napa County, winemakers have proposed creation of an assessment district to fund farmworker housing. Assembly Bill 1550 by Assemblywoman Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa) would allow the Napa County Board of Supervisors to establish a county service area to acquire, construct and maintain farmworker housing. The proposal allows the county to tax landowners up to $10 per acre of vineyard, so long as two-thirds of growers approve of the assessment.
The proposal is the result of farmworker housing shortages during the late summer and early fall harvest, said Jeri Hansen, of the Napa Valley Vintners Association. The county Housing Authority operates three labor facilities that accommodate a total of 136 workers. But the vintners group estimates the county will need an additional 200 to 300 beds at harvest time within 5 years, Hansen said.
The shortage is already so severe that during last year's grape picking season, the Housing Authority set up four-man tents to accommodate migrant workers, said Peter Dreier, agency executive director. This year, the Housing Authority has set up 10 four-man yurts — sturdy circular tents with vinyl floors. Vintners and grape-growers purchased the yurts, which have been erected on vacant county-owned land next to a public works yard outside Yountville. The Housing Authority charges $10 per day and provides three meals a day.
The makeshift village includes two common yurts for meals and gatherings, portable toilets and showers, and a septic tank and leachfield — enough to meet Title 25 requirements for alternative housing, according to Dreier. Still, he said, "we see this as part of a temporary solution. What we like about them is that they can be put up at a location, then taken down and stored when not needed."
The Vintners Association has subsidized labor camp operations through voluntary assessments and through partial proceeds from an annual wine auction. Not everyone has been willing to pay their fair share, Hansen said, although the recalcitrant growers have not opposed AB 1550 thus far.
"It's a very targeted solution for Napa Valley," Hansen said, suggesting a CSA would not work everywhere. "Everyone needs to figure out there own way of meeting this challenge."
State funding arrives
For many years, the state budget contained $2 million to $4 million for farmworker housing. That amount shot to $46 million during the last fiscal year, when the overall state housing budget increased ninefold to about $570 million. As of late August, the state had granted $34.5 million of the $46 million to local housing authorities and nonprofit organizations to pay for developer or rehabilitation of 1,734 units, according to Dyas, the program manager.
The state has funded projects in Imperial, San Diego, Riverside, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Kern, Tulare, Kings, Fresno, Madera, San Joaquin, Monterey, Santa Clara and Lake counties. A wide variety of projects — construction of rental units, assistance with self-help homeownership projects, refurbishment of existing rentals — is eligible for funding. All grants require a match of at least 100%.
The farm labor housing survey suggested that rehabilitation is a major need. The survey of 1,100 farmers and ranchers found that the average farmworker housing unit was built in 1966 and was put into service as farmworker housing more than 10 years later.
State housing officials also have commissioned work on a broad farmworker housing plan, but the project is just beginning.
Robert Wiener, executive director of the California Coalition for Rural Housing, said that rounding up more money remains his organization's top priority. "We have decades of accumulated need. Farmworkers are among the worst-housed and lowest-paid populations in the state," Wiener said.
The farm labor housing survey found that only one-third of farmers in the state provide employee housing. Only 3% of those who do not have housing plan to offer it in the future, while 11% of those who provide shelter intend to reduce or eliminate units. "Most farmers/ranchers, while observing inadequate local supplies of housing, have no interest in owning or managing the housing themselves, preferring instead public, publicly-supported or private housing providers in those roles," the survey reported.
Getting it built
Besides a shortage of funding, local political opposition can stall or kill proposals to build homes for agricultural laborers. Proposals often generate nasty class and ethnic tensions. And some local governments — which see all low-cost housing as a direct money loser — have been less than receptive to nonprofit developers.
Local governments' approaches to farmworker housing are mixed. That the issue remains vexing might be evidenced by the fact that few local planners contacted for this story were willing to comment. Some local governments, such as Sonoma County, have passed ordinances to accommodate development; other local governments have not addressed the issue at all. Glenn County, for example, has no specific policies for farmworker housing, said Senior Planner Christie Leighton. Yet Glenn County's $260-million-a-year agricultural industry is the economic backbone for the rural county 80 miles north of Sacramento.
In 1999, the Legislature passed AB 1505 (Ducheny), which requires a city or county general plan to identify adequate sites with public services and facilities for development of farmworker housing to meet the city or county's regional share. Because the law has been in effect less than two years — and jurisdictions in the most heavily farmed regions have not updated their housing elements — it is a bit early to tell how effective the law will be. Some housing advocates believe the law could provide leverage for dealing with stubborn cities and counties.
"The housing element is a nice tool," Wiener added, "but it doesn't change attitudes."
Those attitudes are a persistent hurdle even for a group with an extensive track record, such as Visalia's Self-Help Enterprises, which will break ground on its 5,000th unit this year. "We continually run into the same obstacles and the severe opposition when we try to build," said Carey, of Self-Help Enterprises.
Patricia Harrison, a professor at UC Davis's design program and a low-income housing researcher, recommended working with residents and local officials before fighting them.
"What you have to do is go in with a design that meets the community norms. And then you have to go in and listen to people. You have to work with the community's concerns," Harrison said. If adjustments such as more driveways, or additional landscaping helps gain local resident's support, then project developers should make the changes, she said.
Harrison recently designed a manufactured home project for 24 single males in the Colusa County community of Arbuckle. The project met strong local opposition, but her client, a local farmer, was willing to tinker with the design to offset some concerns. Residents became more receptive as construction continued because they saw the project did not appear out of place, she said.
Carey said that Self-Help Enterprises of Visalia does not build projects that people oppose because future residents would have too great a burden. He agrees that designing a project that looks like any other development is essential. When Self-Help Enterprises builds multi-family projects — which are targeted toward farm laborers — it always builds at a lower density than permitted to curry favor with locals, Carey added. The agency also insists on having a resident manager and a community meeting room for its multi-family developments.
The fact that state funding for farmworker housing dropped 25% below a baseline established one year earlier demonstrates a systemic instability that makes planning difficult.
Shelter for single-males remains problematic. Harrison, of UC, focuses on housing for single males, but most nonprofit developers emphasize family homes. "The challenge out there," said Carey, "is still the single male population, and I'm not sure how to deal with that."
A state income tax credit for development of farmworker has attracted little interest since its approval in the mid-90s, said Marc Brown, of California Housing Law Project. Advocates support AB 1160 (Florez), which makes technical changes intended to expand the tax credit program.
Peter Carey, Self-Help Enterprises, (559) 651-1000.
Peter Dreier, Napa Valley Housing Authority, (707) 257-9547.
Pat Dyas, Department of Housing and Community Development, (916) 327-0942.
Patricia Harrison, UC Davis School of Design, (530) 752-6411.
Jeri Hansen, Napa Valley Vintners Association, (707) 968-4206.
Robert Wiener, California Coalition for Rural Housing, (916) 443-4448.