LOMPOC, Calif. - Central Coast farm workers may have new opportunities for affordable housing if a bill being debated at the State Capitol is signed into law.
On Wednesday, the Farm Worker Housing Act of 2019 advanced to the next step of the legislative process after clearing an assembly committee hearing.
For farm workers in Santa Maria struggling to pay rent, the proposal offers a beam of hope.
“I was talking to this lady who lives in a small studio and pays $1,200," said Andrea Cabrera of Lideres Campesinas, a Central Coast organization for women field workers. "Sometimes when some crops are off season, you're only working four to five hours a day and that's not enough for the rent.”
According to Cabrera, workers in Santa Maria can make around $500 a week during a good season.
"But mostly everything you make in a month goes towards the rent," she said.
Labor advocates say there are 22,000 farm workers in the state that are often forced to sleep in cars, tents or overcrowded apartments because they have no housing options.
“I grew up in farm worker housing living with my seven to ten members of my family right beside the vineyard where my grandfather worked,” Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Hollister), the bill's author, said during a press conference on Tuesday. “This bill would make a significant difference in the lives of those who work the fields like my grandfather once did.”
The legislation would create a streamlined process where agricultural land owners could build farm worker housing on their property without being required to rezone the land for residential use.
According to the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Barbara, the current process is extensive.
“First of all, you have to identify a piece of land that's suitable for building, and then you have to start the entitlement process. Then it has to go through a number of design reviews before it's approved,” executive director Bob Havlicek said.
There is currently one development in Los Alamos geared specifically for farm worker families.
"It's called Creekside Village and it serves 38 families,” he said, adding that there are plans to re-develop existing property in Guadalupe, as well.
“Right now it's 52 units of affordable housing, and it's going to be demolished and rebuilt with 80 units. So we expect that we'll be able to serve farm workers as well as other low income families," he said.
A family of four making $36,000 a year, or less, would qualify for low income housing in Santa Barbara County.
"Of the 1300 units that we have, our wait list is over 6,000 names," said Havlicek.
Havlicek says housing projects can take a year or more to complete.
“Anything that can be done to streamline the process will be greatly appreciated. [It] would be ideal to have housing directly in the middle of where the farming actually is, where the need is, so that they don't have long commutes.”
The Housing Authority of the County of Santa Barbara says it tries to find residential opportunities near schools and other services.
The agency serves local farm workers regardless of immigration status, but subsidies only apply to households with at least one documented family member.
“The amount that they pay for rent will increase based upon how many family members are documented versus not,” Havlicek said, adding that if a family can't provide documentation, they won't qualify for reduced rent.
If Rivas' legislation is signed into law, the farm owner would have to turn the property over to a third party that would set rents and manage the housing. Rivas says his bill will create quality housing opportunities while protecting workers from labor-camp conditions of the past.
"Part of that is no dual role of employer and landlord-- so certainly making sure that anyone that utilizes this bill will get to choose from a qualified non-profit to be able to manage these units."
The housing cannot be dormitory style and must be available exclusively to agricultural employees for at least 55 years. The program is voluntary, however, some farm groups including the Western Growers Association are opposed. Critics say the housing option could be viewed as a one-size fits all solution that will not work for every grower.
Cabrera also worries the bill will discourage efforts to zone for housing in urban areas.
“There are many fields that are too far away from the city [of Santa Maria]. If they build housing on those lands, the farm workers will be secluded away from everything," she said. "If they really want to help us, they should provide affordable housing options in the city."
The bill is separate from the H-2A visa program regulations, which require employers to house migrant workers. However, the legislation could also benefit those seasonal laborers by facilitating housing opportunities overall.