Farmworkers Bear the Brunt of California's Housing Crisis | Civil Eats

Farmworkers Bear the Brunt of California’s Housing Crisis

Despite $100 million in recent investments, many of the state’s 400,000 to 800,000 farmworkers live in cramped, unsafe conditions. 

FRESNO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 17: Lourdes Cardenas, a farm worker originally from Culiacán, Mexico, tends to recently washed clothes on May 17, 2021 in Fresno, California. Cardenas has been a farm worker for 18 years after coming to the U.S. from Culiacán, Mexico. The clothing worn for work are washed daily due to the pesticides used in the farms. Since November 2019, there have been three bills introduced in Congress that would give undocumented food and farm workers as well as unauthorized immigrants, a path to citizenship or legal residency status. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives in March with bipartisan support after first being introduced in November 2019, would give undocumented farm workers a path to legal residency and protection against detention and deportation. The passage of the bill comes after months of negotiations between members of both parties, United Farm Workers, UFW Foundation, Farmworker Justice, and various national growers organizations. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

On most days, Rosalia Martinez finds it unbearable to live in the converted garage she shares with her husband and three young children. It’s a single room without privacy and the rent—$1,350 a month—is a lot more than the farmworker family can afford. But in Greenfield, an agricultural town on California’s central coast, it’s the best they could find.

“It’s uncomfortable, but here we are,” said Martinez. “We want to move, our children need more space, but there are no other homes for rent, there is literally nowhere else to move.”

Martinez’ plight is not unique, as farmworkers throughout California’s agricultural regions face an extraordinary housing shortage. At the end of last year, Governor Gavin Newsom announced with great fanfare that the state would invest over $30 million in upgrading its 24 migrant housing centers. The governor also committed $100 million for the construction and rehabilitation of permanent farmworker housing. The funding comes as the state tries to dig itself out from the pandemic slump while its affordable housing crisis continues to deepen and its share of homeless residents is projected to rise.

But while farmworker housing advocates and developers have welcomed the money, they say much more is needed given the overwhelming scale of the problem and the fact that farmworkers are essential to the productivity of California’s lucrative agricultural sector.

“It’s a significant investment, but we need to do a lot more,” said Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Salinas). “Farmworkers feed our state and our nation every single day and have been doing it for generations . . . but they live in some of the worst conditions imaginable. They are still sleeping in their cars. But now it’s not just individual workers, it’s also their families.”

Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, the executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS), put it more starkly: “The new funding is woefully inadequate—a drop in the bucket,” she told Civil Eats. It’s better than nothing, she added, but “doesn’t begin to match the need.”

Many Farmworker Families Share a Single Room

“The new funding is woefully inadequate—a drop in the bucket.”

In the early days of California agriculture, farmworkers lived in substandard, deplorable conditions, much like the ones described in the Grapes of Wrath. They shared cramped rooms and shacks in squalid migrant camps, and slept in cars and in the fields.

It turns out, little has changed. Today, California growers rely on approximately 400,000-800,000 farmworkers to churn out more than 400 commodities—including the lion’s share of the country’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Most of those workers now live permanently with their families in the U.S. and earn an average annual pay of $20,500 due to the seasonal nature of their job, and often live in areas that suffer severe shortages of affordable housing.

California is deep in the midst of a state-wide housing crisis and although its cities often get the most attention, the crisis is just as acute in rural areas, where rentals are extremely expensive and hard to find. At one school district in Salinas on the Central Coast, 40 percent of the student population is considered homeless. The housing that’s available is in substandard condition and many farmworkers can’t afford the fees associated with applications and move-in costs, said Sarait Martinez, executive Director of Centro Binacional para el Desarollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, a nonprofit that works with Indigenous farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley and on the Central Coast. Several families often share a small apartment or even a single room—and those are the lucky ones, she said.

“We have families with kids that have been evicted and they have nowhere to go. There are no places available and people don’t have access to shelters until they are on the streets,” said Martinez. “Our families have to constantly move from county to county because they cannot find housing.”

In Greenfield, Martinez and her husband are struggling to get by. They’re seasonal workers and agricultural jobs are scarce during the winter months. She stays home to care for the couple’s 9-month-old baby. Her husband has been out of work, but just last week found a temporary job pruning grape vines for minimum wage. Their landlord just raised the rent by $200. The family has been relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), i.e. food stamps to survive.

“I have no cash in my pocket,” Martinez told Civil Eats. “And I have no idea where we’re going to find enough money to pay the rent. Maybe the lottery?”

Like many in Greenfield, she hails from the Mexican state of Oaxaca and is part of the Indigenous Triqui community. Martinez applied for a unit in a farmworker housing project six years ago. Since then, she has heard nothing back.

Many people are facing similar challenges. California has done little to help agricultural workers and their families find a permanent place to live. The state’s Office of Migrant Services operates 24 migrant housing centers that are scattered throughout California and open during the peak harvest season. The centers offer almost 1,900 rental units that can house up to 11,000 agricultural workers and family members, but that’s likely a tiny fraction of the housing that’s needed.

The state has not created any new migrant housing in decades. And it’s unclear just how much permanent housing would stem the tide of homelessness among farmworkers. California’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) does not have data on how many units are needed statewide, department spokeswoman Alicia Murillo told Civil Eats. In fact, the state hasn’t ever completed a state-wide farmworker housing study.

“It’s the NIMBY response. People love the produce, but they don’t want farmworkers living in their communities.”

In the coastal area of Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties, a consortium of local agencies released their own housing report in 2018 and found that about 73,000 workers live in the two valleys year-round. Most are married and many live with children. An estimated 77 percent live in overcrowded or extremely overcrowded conditions, with multiple families sharing bedrooms, living rooms, garages, and other spaces. Just over 1,000 subsidized farmworker housing units are available to those workers.

The study concluded that an additional 45,600 units of farmworker housing are needed for year-round farmworkers and their families in the two valleys alone to end “stunningly high rates” of overcrowding. Advocates say similar farmworker housing deficits exist in every single agricultural valley in the state.

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Racism, Lack of Infrastructure, Funding Barriers to Housing

Advocates say building housing for all or even most agricultural laborers in the state would be a huge challenge. Because so many people are suffering homelessness across the state, it can be politically difficult to ask for funding for farmworkers, said Carlisle-Cummins. But it’s essential to focus on this group, she added, because farmworkers are one of the most vulnerable populations and they’re also the backbone of the state’s lucrative agricultural industry.

“Without their knowledge and labor, we don’t eat and we don’t have a food system,” said Carlisle-Cummins.

The pandemic has exacerbated the need for more farmworker housing. From the start, they were deemed essential workers and publicly praised for risking their lives to feed the country—yet they also saw higher rates of infection with COVID-19 due in part to their severely overcrowded living conditions. And housing costs—already astronomical prior to the pandemic—rose further in rural areas, said Assemblymember Rivas, as tech workers and other affluent families were newly able to work outside of cities.

“COVID has intensified the farmworker housing crisis,” said Rivas, who grew up in a two-room farmworker housing unit with 10 family members. “Rents are now even higher. And the severe overcrowding means farmworkers have no room to quarantine or isolate. Social distancing is nearly impossible.”

Despite the clear need, some local governments reject farmworker housing projects. There are restrictions to build on undeveloped land and localities use zoning to make building difficult. Two car garage ordinances, elaborate parking requirements, or low density requirements—meaning the project would not be able to house enough people to pencil out financially—can lead many housing projects to going nowhere, said Rob Wiener, executive director of California Coalition for Rural Housing, a group of nonprofit and public developers, activists and local government officials who advocate for the creation of more farmworker housing.

“It’s the NIMBY response. People love the produce, but they don’t want farmworkers living in their communities,” Wiener said. “There’s racism and prejudice against farmworkers who are overwhelmingly Latino immigrants.”

The lack of basic infrastructure in rural areas is also a problem, as local governments—many of which are low on funding—can’t pay for adequate sewers, water, or roads, Wiener said. This adds to the development costs. Lack of access to schools and transportation are also barriers.

The recent trend of agricultural employers bringing thousands of temporary H2A workers from Mexico and elsewhere is also exacerbating the affordable housing crisis in rural areas, Wiener added. Because employers must guarantee housing to H2A workers, some growers are buying up or renting out old motels, trailer parks, and single-family homes, which were previously traditionally used by farmworkers who live in the U.S. permanently.

Not Enough Funding to Meet the Need

But by far the biggest challenge—for developers of any affordable housing—is the lack of financing to cover development costs, Wiener said. Those costs are driven by the rising prices of land, labor, building supplies, local government fees, and financing. Developers must layer subsidies from 5-6 sources for affordable housing projects to pencil out, he said.

And farmworker housing can be particularly costly because agricultural workers can only afford low rents—meaning developers can’t take out too many loans because they won’t be able to cover management and repair costs enough to pay them back. Hence the need for more grants and tax credits, Wiener said.

The state’s principal program for developing new farmworker housing is the Joe Serna, Jr. Farmworker Housing Grant Program, which is named after a farmworker who grew up in public housing and later became Sacramento’s first Latinx mayor. It finances the new construction, rehabilitation, and acquisition of owner-occupied and rental units for agricultural workers as well as grants for home buyers. Current, retired and disabled farmworkers qualify, with no questions are asked about legal status.

Last year’s $100 million allocation (as part of California’s 2021-2022 budget, or the “California Comeback Plan”) is one of a series of investments the state has made into the program. In 2002, the program received $200 million. And in 2018, $300 million. Last year’s budget agreement also included $37 million for the upgrades to the 24 migrant housing centers and additional funding for repairs and new developments is in the pipeline.

Most other funding sources available to farmworker housing developers are inadequate, said Wiener. There’s California’s Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which has a set-aside of state low-income housing tax credits for farmworker housing developments. (It’s modeled after Oregon’s Agriculture Workforce Housing Tax Credits program.) The program allows corporate investors who help finance the development or rehabilitation of agricultural housing to get a tax break.

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But the farmworker set-aside accrues at a rate of just $500,000 a year, meaning it’s not a major funding source, Wiener said. In addition, the tax credit program has a set-aside for rural projects, which can theoretically benefit farmworker housing. But again, it’s limited and most projects don’t receive the credits they seek.

Developers can also apply for a loan from the state’s Multifamily Housing Program, in which case the housing can be open to other residents in addition to farmworkers. There’s also $50 million set aside for farmworker housing projects in the newly established California Housing Accelerator program, which launched last year and will distribute $1.6 billion in zero-interest loans to shovel-ready projects that have already received a state award and are financially unable to move forward due to the shortage of low-income housing tax credits and bonds.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Labor Housing Loan and Grant Program provides financing to develop or upgrade rental housing for year-round and migrant or seasonal domestic farm laborers. But the USDA funding has declined steadily, said Wiener. And even if it were a larger pool of money, there’s a hitch: only farmworkers who can prove they are U.S. citizens or permanent residents can live in the housing. This disqualifies many workers since half of all crop farmworkers in the U.S. lack legal status and the share of unauthorized workers is highest in California.

Other Solutions to the Farmworker Housing Crisis

Beyond allocating more funding to stem the farmworker housing crisis, Wiener said the state needs to incentivize localities to be more proactive in making space for affordable housing in their communities. This includes penalizing local governments that outright reject farmworker and other affordable housing projects or create zoning and other rules that make it challenging to build.

CIRS’s Carlisle-Cummins would like to see the state totally rethink its farmworker housing models. She said in the current set-up landlord arrangements can be exploitive and often involve residency restrictions tied to immigration status or migration status (in some cases, the housing is available only to families that move every six months). The current housing options don’t allow workers to save money or build wealth, she said, and are often built to maximize the profits of large developers. And farmworkers are excluded from the design process.

“There are alternative housing projects that can create communities for farmworkers and others in rural areas and transfer some power to them,” Carlisle-Cummins said.

Alternatives include the mutual housing model—such as Mutual Housing at Spring Lake in Woodland—where the property is owned by a nonprofit mutual housing association and residents play a role in its governance and in the property’s operations. Housing cooperatives on the other hand, allow farmworkers to collectively own and democratically control their own housing.

At least 11 such cooperatives currently exist in the state, many of them in Monterey County. Another option is for a community land trust to acquire the property to keep it affordable, in which case the residents own their homes but lease the land underneath them from the land trust. And mutual self-help housing allows groups of typically 10 to 12 families to build each other’s homes with construction supervision provided by a nonprofit housing organization.

Of course, as Carlisle-Cummins sees it, the most promising solutions would keep farmworkers from needing subsidizing housing in the first place. “The issue comes down to a dignified salary and citizenship status,” she said. “Farmworkers should be able to afford decent housing.”

Gosia Wozniacka is a senior reporter at Civil Eats. A multilingual journalist with more than fifteen years of experience, Gosia is currently based in Oregon. Wozniacka worked for five years as a staff reporter for The Associated Press in Fresno, California, and then in Portland, Oregon. She wrote extensively about agriculture, water, and other environmental issues, farmworkers and immigration policy. Email her at gosia (at) and follow her on Twitter @GosiaWozniacka. Read more >

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