Housing issues have consumed the legislature this year. Within that broad topic, bills proposing to boost farmworker housing in specific ways have gained traction, though questions linger over how much impact the measures would have with such a complex and locally driven issue.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office paints a dire picture of the crisis in California: “2.2 million extremely low-income and very low-income renter households are competing for 664,000 affordable rental units.” That segment includes migrant farmworkers. Housing has been an issue since the Bracero Program of the 1960’s, which allowed Mexican farmworkers to be brought in as temporary workers.
The problem is especially acute along the Central Coast. Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties are short by more than 1,000 additional units for farmworker families, according to the California Chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers. Its annual report on ag lands sales cites increasing housing costs for farmers. Due to the new ag overtime law being implemented this year and the ongoing shortage of available workers, it expects “no discernible alleviation on the demand for more beds.”
The state legislators are also well-aware of the farmworker housing issue.
“In the district I represent, there is no doubt that the interface between urban and ag creates complications,” said Assemblymember Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, during a committee hearing on Assembly Bill 1783.
In that hearing, Assemblymember Robert Rivas proposed AB 1783 known as the Farmworker Housing Act of 2019 as a way to directly benefit farmworkers on H-2A guest work visas by streamlining the environmental review process for developing new farmworker housing. The proposal builds on a similar bill passed in 2017, AB 35, which was designed for urban infill housing. The bill had immediate pushback from assemblymembers for adding to a broad precedent taking hold in the legislature of sidestepping the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA
Rivas grew up in farmworker housing himself and was appalled by the conditions he was seeing now, with children of farmworkers left homeless and families living in garages, tents, vans and abandoned buildings, he said. United Farm Workers agreed and sponsored the bill, with farmworker rights icon Dolores Huerta speaking on behalf of AB 1783.
“There’s no reason why anyone should be against this important piece of legislation,” she said, during a press conference introducing the bill.
Western Growers opposed the bill, arguing in a statement that it “would not help mitigate the farmworker housing crisis and in fact would make it worse.” Matthew Allen, the government affairs director for Western Growers, raised concerns during the committee about the permitting process. He said growers would still be liable for the property when they turn over administration of the housing to a third party. Farmers are already taking ag land out of production to build housing using as much as a million dollars of their own capital, he added.
Attorney Lauren Noland-Hajick, representing several grower groups, also opposed the bill, citing NIMBY (not in my backyard) issues among local communities as the primary obstacle.
“We had some members building housing on the Central Coast make it all the way through the CEQA process and those houses, before they could be completed, were actually burned down by members of the community,” she said at the hearing.
Preempting this concern, Rivas designed the program to be voluntary, allowing farmers to opt in for the benefit. In his defense, he countered that the bill simply “makes it easier for farmers and nonprofit organizations to build dignified family housing.”
But Limón said the legislature often passes bills like this and yet the committee is back the next year discussing the same housing issues. Rivas acknowledged the shortcomings of AB 1783 as well.
“This bill won't solve all of our problems with regard to farmworker housing and the farmworker housing shortage,” he said.
After three committee hearings and a debate on the floor, the Assembly passed the bill last week and the Senate will soon take a vote.
Another farmworker housing bill in the Senate is AB 10, which has been quietly working its way through the legislature. That bill expands a tax levy from the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and allocates $25 million specifically for farmworker housing.
A number of bills have used this mechanism in the past to address housing issues. Former Governor Jerry Brown vetoed such bills in 2015, writing: “Tax credits, like new spending on programs, need to be considered comprehensively as part of the budget deliberations.” In a similar argument, the California Teachers Association on principle opposed AB 10, and all other tax credits proposed, until a “comprehensive evaluation, including broader transparency and accountability can be created.”
The bill received unanimous votes from three committees and gained all the Assembly votes on the floor last week, though three members abstained.
Other bills have gone beyond farmworker housing to address energy efficiency for these homes, the excess costs for heating and cooling these rural homes and the inadequate water infrastructure for isolated farmworker communities. Many of these bills and these issues have returned to the legislature each session and will continue to be brought back for years to come, as housing dominates the conversation in Sacramento.