Despite years of advocacy, some farmworker housing still deplorable

Photo: Rosa Ramirez/California Health Report

OXNARD— The stories that Dario Gutierrez, a native of Mexico City, would hear before arriving in Oxnard two years ago prompted him to make the dangerous trek to the United States illegally. People here, he recalls hearing, earn enough to live comfortably. “Dicen que aquí se barre el dinero en la calle.”—They say here, people can sweep money off the streets.

The saying has prompted flows of people from Mexico and other parts of Latin America to migrate north for work in California’s bountiful agriculture industry. They hope for upward mobility. But the reality for many toiling in the $44.3 billion industry is different. Poor pay, which characterizes the farmworker labor force, has left many struggling to find adequate and safe housing.

“A lot of the families and farmworkers who come into the valley live in deplorable housing conditions,” said Nadia Villagran, director of operations and communications with the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition. Many farm labor camps, which are generally used by single male workers, have dirt floors and are overcrowded.

So far, Gutierrez has found the nearly $8 per hour he earns picking strawberries hardly provides him enough for the room he rents, which he shares with another farmworker. During the peak season, when he has the opportunity to earn more, he earns by the piece.

After two years of working in the fields, the 23-year-old has mastered the repetitive hand motions to pick fresh strawberries. “I’m used to it by now,” he says with a smile. On average, he says proudly, he fills four boxes per hour.

Advocates and industry leaders say farmworkers housing in California is uneven. The Central Valley, a 450-mile stretch of incredibly fertile and agriculturally rich land, has the largest number of the state’s farmworkers, of which the great majority are Hispanic immigrants. Their housing needs are vast.

In poorer rural parts of Riverside County, illegal mobile parks without running water, sewages systems or electricity, have become permanent and temporary homes for other farm laborers and their families.

In Ventura County, one of the leading citrus producing areas, farmworkers must often pool their resources to rent an apartment, which are often shared by multiple families.

The average apartment is more than $18,000 per year, nowhere enough for the average farmworker salary ($22,000). An estimated 75 percent of the area’s farmworkers earn less than $15,000 per year, according to a report by the Workforce Investment Board of Ventura County.

“Obviously, we’re talking about crowded conditions that farmworkers are living in,” said Daniela Ramirez, coordinator with House Farm Workers!

While farmworkers in general experience poor housing arrangements, seasonal workers are more prone to dangerous conditions. In Mecca, a small farming community 140 miles east of Los Angeles, many farmworkers flood the area each spring to pick table grapes, bell peppers, watermelons and dates that are shipped to different parts of the state. Nearly half of the estimated 9,000 residents of the unincorporated town live below the poverty line, according to latest Census figures.

Years ago, two large empty lots near Mecca’s largest food stores had become the campgrounds where farmworkers would sleep at night. Without affordable housing options, many seasonal agricultural laborers rested their heads inside their cars or under trees. Teenagers and men would bathe with dirty canal water.

Maria Machuca, who is a member of the Mecca Community Council, said several housing initiatives, including a mobile home park and several apartments with a designated number of units set aside for farmworkers, have alleviated the housing needs for some, especially those who have families and can prove they are in the county legally.

“Is it enough? No, it’s not enough,” said Machuca, a daughter of farmworkers.

“We still have migrant farmworkers living in their cars near mini marts when it’s grape season,” says Machuca. That season, which generally runs from late April through July, is also the hottest.

“And it’s not safe,” she says.

Many seasonal workers have become targets of assaults and robberies. Earlier this month, a Fresno County Superior Court judge found that the murder of a farmworker who was killed while sleeping in his car was conducted on behalf of a gang, according to news reports.

But some regions are making strides.

Marin County, of the state’s most expensive housing markets, recently partnered with a local foundation to provide housing for low-income farmworkers in the west part of the county, says Dan Schurman, director of business development with Ag Innovations Network.

And in some regions of Napa and Sonoma counties have created private or county-run housing for seasonal migrant workers. Nick Frey, President of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, said those “bunk houses” are the result of ordinances passed in the 1990s in those counties. Yet the two counties have taken vastly different approaches, he said. Napa’s are run by counties but not in Sonoma

“Employers would build them at their expense,” he said of the latter. He said those housing options have worked for Napa and Sonoma, mainly because they have year-round labor where farmworkers earn higher wages.

“If you’re a good harvester, you can make $20 to $30 an hour during the harvest season,” he says. “A lot of the labor is year round”

Unlike agriculture laborers in other regions, Napa’s wine industry workers earn 30 percent more, according to the 2013 initial farmworker housing report. While there are two peak seasons running from May through June and August and October, the demand for agricultural laborers is year-round, as vineyards require replanting and tending. “In such a high-value crop, there’s always work to be done,” says Schurman.

Advocates and workers have complained of poor living conditions in these houses. But Frey says workers take little precaution in keeping them clean. If they remove a light bulb, he says, the owner can get fined for code violations.

The area’s steady work and higher than average pay, nonetheless, has prompted many farmworkers to chose to live in Napa on a permanent or semi-permanent basis, which has also increased the need for more affordable housing.

In order to get a snapshot of the current housing demands of workers in the area’s agriculture industry—the backbone of the local community—the Napa County Housing and Intergovernmental Affairs ordered a comprehensive study of area’s farmworker housing needs. It found that more affordable farmworker housing is needed.

Still, Villagran, whose non-profit organization helps farmworkers obtain housing, says that even when housing options exist, workers must meet a series of requirements—something that’s not always possible for people who have limited formal education and English skills. Aside from proving they are in the country legally, these families must have good credit. They must also prove they earn enough to pay the rent and that they are indeed earning a living as farmworkers.

Schurman, with Ag Innovations Network, says his organization is currently working with stakeholders across the state assess the current housing needs. Parts of Napa and Sonoma counties have privately or county-run farmworker housing, providing some options that can be held as models.

With funds from the Agriculture Department, the organization will release a report this year with recommendations for policy makers and advocates.

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