In summary

One of the farms where the Half Moon Bay mass shootings took place announced plans to build proper housing with codes and permits by next year. But why must it take a mass shooting to motivate a farm to humanely house its workers?

Guest Commentary written by

José Vadi

José Vadi

José Vadi is the author of “Inter State: Essays From California” and “Chipped,” a forthcoming nonfiction collection on skateboarding. His work has appeared in the Paris Review, The Atlantic, PBS NewsHour, the San Francisco Chronicle, Free Skate Magazine, Alta Journal and the Yale Review.

The shootings at Half Moon Bay, claiming the lives of seven farmworkers across two farm sites, is a tragedy that reveals the persistently deplorable conditions farmworkers of any citizenship status face in California.

In the wake of these shootings, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that neither site was permitted to house farmworkers in any capacity, leading to no oversight from any authorities. Twenty-seven farm workers, including families, lived in converted trailers and substandard living conditions. San Mateo County officials “found no records of housing permits or inspection records for either farm.”

California Terra Garden has announced plans to build proper housing with codes and permits by next year – but why must it take a mass shooting to catalyze a farm to humanely house their workers?

The inability to properly house farmworkers is as persistent as California’s agricultural history. Crammed into hotel rooms, overstuffed in small homes or other vulnerable living conditions, all of this is done in order to work in the fields. In June 2016, the California Institute for Rural Studies’ farmworker study on the Salinas and Pajaro valleys noted an “additional 45,560 units of farmworker housing are needed to alleviate critical overcrowding,” in addition to permanent housing needs and affordable, permanent, year-round family housing. 

The terrible housing conditions reminded me of other recent cases where farmworker’s housing conditions were exposed. In 2017, Future Ag Management, Inc. in Soledad was fined just over $150,000 for having 22 seasonal workers tilling lettuce and cauliflower while living under inhuman, cramped conditions. That included sharing “one shower and sink in unsanitary restrooms infested with insects … local health authorities determined the water provided to employees for drinking and washing was unsafe for human consumption.”

That same year, the agricultural industry in the Salinas Valley netted over $9 billion, with nearly 82,000 farmworkers in the fields or packing houses of Monterey County. 

Legal housing structures, when approved and constructed, have faced numerous backlashes from local residents. The Spreckels Crossing housing for H-2A visa workers at Tanimura & Antle near Salinas has been seen as a model, hosting nearly 800 workers including family units. But it faced widespread backlash from the predominantly white Spreckels residents, with many filing suit to slow the projects. 

In Nipomo, along California’s Central Coast, an attempt from berry growers to convert parts of a new housing tract into housing for their farmworkers was met with death threats. One of the homes burned to the ground in April 2016. Investigators on the scene immediately suspected arson.

The growers, Greg and Donna France, abandoned the project out of fear of more violence, even apologizing in their announcement to residents for not announcing their plans sooner (would that have helped?). Their announcement offers a cautionary reality for the state. “Our struggle to do the right thing by finding a quality housing solution will be repeated by others in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties and throughout the state as farmers face a growing labor shortage in this country.”

Individual efforts are no substitute for systemic change, and local support to expand affordable housing in Half Moon Bay have been stifled by a “a significant anti-growth, anti-housing constituency,” land use attorney Jennifer Hernandez told the Chronicle. Voters passed Measure D in 1999, which capped city growth to a fraction of the population and implemented a bureaucratic certificate program. Similarly glacial approvals from the Coastal Commission, with delays of up to two to three years for even home remodels the norm, led Senator Scott Wiener to tweet that such measures as Half Moon Bay’s “should be illegal,” while calling for reforms of the commission. 

As new housing is considered in Half Moon Bay and other regions near California agriculture, will residents support these initiatives? Will growers maneuver for more control over their workers? From the local fields to the policies of Sacramento, these are questions our state has left unanswered from the Dust Bowl to present. 

California’s fields are sown with trauma. Surviving California Terra Farms co-workers returned to work just days after the shooting, all of them now displaced, and their plight receding into the background where many prefer it resides.

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