Here’s how California can help farm workers sleep at night

Roberto Jimenez, Special to CALmatters

We know their stories because they have told them to us:

The hardship of sleeping in the fields with no shelter except a blue tarp and the grape vines that they picked; the awkwardness felt by elderly parents who slept on the couches of their adult children’s apartments and trailers already crammed beyond capacity; the anxiety that accompanied the end of harvest when they had to move out of the migrant labor camp; the frustration of spending more than half their income on apartments where the roof leaked and cockroaches ran across the kitchen floor.

We know of even worse stories, like the night in early May when a driver crashed into a farmworker family’s trailer located in a trailer park along a treacherous stretch of highway, north of Knight’s Landing, killing three of the four people inside.

It’s a California story that goes back to the Dust Bowl, and even earlier, about a state agricultural industry that produces more than $50 billion a year in sales but still falls short when it comes to providing adequate housing for a labor force of 800,000 who work the fields, dairies, and packing sheds at peak season.

But there’s a piece of legislation moving through the California Legislature that offers help. 

Assembly Bill 1783, by Assemblyman Robert Rivas of Hollister, would give agricultural employers a streamlined option to dedicate a portion of their land for housing. 

Even with current agricultural zoning, the employers would only need ministerial approval to cut the red tape that hinders housing construction. This bill has passed through the Assembly and awaits a hearing Tuesday in the Senate Housing Committee.

Under Rivas’s bill, the new housing could be designated for the growing percentage of California farm workers who live year-round with their families in their communities. 

The bill would relieve growers from managing the housing by turning that responsibility over to not-for-profit providers who would be registered with the California Housing and Community Development Department. 

If any growers find any provisions of the bill too objectionable, the legislation contains an easy remedy: they wouldn’t have to participate.

“Guest worker” programs are a growing source of controversy, and while this bill doesn’t stop any employer from participating in them, it does preclude the state from funding any “bracero” type housing programs in which workers in the past have been subjected to wage theft, job dangers, and deplorable housing conditions.

With only a limited number of state dollars available for farmworker housing, it makes sense to focus on housing that can accommodate families.

Nobody disputes the need for more farmworker housing in California, least of all growers. 

Growers know that inadequate housing hurts production and leads to labor shortages. They also know the situation is worsening. It has become common for more than seven people to share a single one-bedroom unit, although in many cases homes are even more crowded than that.   

The good news is that there are several nonprofits around California that know how to build, manage, and maintain farmworker housing. The Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation is doing it in Ventura, the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition in Indio, the California Human Development Corporation in Santa Rosa, the Limoneira Company in Santa Paula, the Napa County Housing Authority, and, of course, our own Mutual Housing at Spring Lake community in Woodland.

Assemblyman Rivas’s bill offers an overdue remedy to a long-standing California problem. Lawmakers should not miss the opportunity to take a historic step.

Roberto Jimenez is chief executive officer of the Sacramento-based Mutual Housing California, [email protected] wrote this commentary for CALmatters. To read his past commentary for CALmatters, please click here.

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