De­sired for their la­bor, rejected as neigh­bors

For­eign guest work­ers in Cal­i­for­nia of­ten face hos­tile com­mu­ni­ties as grow­ers and ci­ties strug­gle to house them

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Ge­of­frey Mo­han :: re­port­ing from nipomo, calif.

The “urban farm homes” nes­tled along a cul-de­sac off an old farm road in Nipomo, Calif., had lofted floor plans with more than 2,500 square feet of liv­ing space — “per­fect … for multi-gen­er­a­tional liv­ing,” the ad­ver­tise­ments boasted.

Straw­berry grower Greg France and his wife, Donna, had other ideas for the planned seven-home de­vel­op­ment. They would use it to host more than 100 work­ers com­ing up from Mex­ico to pick straw­ber­ries on their farms un­der an agri­cul­tural guest worker pro­gram.

When neigh­bors in the south­ern San Luis Obispo County town of 17,000 saw bunks be­ing moved into one of the newly con­structed houses, anger erupted. Meet­ings were held, fin­gers were pointed and death threats were hurled at the Frances.

On April 6, 2016, flames de­voured one of the un­fin­ished homes, not yet wired for elec­tric­ity. In­ves­ti­ga­tors al­most im­me­di­ately con­cluded it was ar­son.

The case re­mains un­solved. So does the hous­ing prob­lem for tem­po­rary guest work­ers

in towns and ci­ties along Cal­i­for­nia’s coastal agri­cul­tural belt.

In­creas­ingly fond of lo­cally grown pro­duce, Cal­i­for­ni­ans are far less en­thu­si­as­tic about lo­cally housed farm­work­ers. They have de­ployed law­suits, hastily writ­ten reg­u­la­tions — and, ap­par­ently, the torch — to seg­re­gate thou­sands of sea­sonal work­ers to seedy road­side ho­tels and crowded hous­ing in ci­ties where af­ford­able shel­ter is al­ready lim­ited.

“They love the straw­ber­ries, but they don’t like the farm­work­ers,” said Lu­cas Zucker, pol­icy and com­mu­ni­ca­tion di­rec­tor for Cen­tral Coast Al­liance United for a Sus­tain­able Econ­omy, a la­bor ad­vo­cacy group in Ven­tura.

That age-old “not in my back­yard” re­ac­tion threat­ens grow­ers’ abil­ity to fill the cur­rent la­bor short­age and ex­ac­er­bates the long-term hous­ing cri­sis for lo­cal farm­work­ers.

Last year, Cal­i­for­nia re­cruited more than 11,000 guest work­ers, largely to pick straw­ber­ries or cut let­tuce, ac­cord­ing to a Times anal­y­sis of Depart­ment of La­bor data. Re­cruit­ment in the first four months of this year is up 25% over a sim­i­lar pe­riod last year.

All of those guest work­ers have to be housed by their em­ploy­ers, at no charge to the worker, un­der the visa pro­gram known as H-2A.

More than 1,400 of those guest work­ers have squeezed into the Cen­tral Coast city of Santa Maria, where 1 in 5 res­i­dents al­ready lives be­low the poverty level. An ad­di­tional 2,500 are stay­ing in the im­pov­er­ished ci­ties of the Sali­nas Val­ley, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral records.

Only 12 are liv­ing in the res­i­den­tial cen­ter of Nipomo, where France is sell­ing the last of his houses. This sea­son, his con­tracted guest work­ers will bunk in Santa Maria.

“We’ve learned our les­son,” France said. “We need to be sure they’re in a suit­able area, both for them and their neigh­bors.”

An old sugar mill site in the Sali­nas Val­ley seemed like a suit­able place to house as many as 800 guest work­ers for Tan­imura & An­tle Pro­duce.

The com­pany’s work­ers tra­di­tion­ally har­vested let­tuce and veg­eta­bles in the Im­pe­rial Val­ley in win­ter, moved to the Cen­tral Val­ley in early spring, then to the Sali­nas Val­ley. But that mi­gra­tion has waned as hous­ing in Sali­nas be­came more ex­pen­sive — the 156,000 res­i­dents of the city pay a greater share of their in­come for shel­ter than most peo­ple in Cal­i­for­nia, mak­ing it one of the state’s least af­ford­able places to live.

Tan­imura & An­tle strug­gled to find enough la­bor­ers to har­vest its Sali­nas Val­ley crops — $2 mil­lion in let­tuce was left to rot in 2015.

The com­pany drew up plans to house Mex­i­can guest work­ers at Spreck­els Cross­ing, a 4.5-acre cam­pus of eight build­ings set amid ath­letic fields, a bar­be­cue area and re­cre­ation hall. Work­ers would get to and from fields by com­pany bus and take pub­lic tran­sit to Sali­nas, three miles north.

Af­ford­able hous­ing ad­vo­cates and county plan­ners loved it. The town of Spreck­els did not.

Spreck­els’ 760 res­i­dents — nearly all white, na­tive born and earn­ing well above the state’s me­dian in­come — feared that mi­grant work­ers would bring crime and traf­fic and de­stroy prop­erty val­ues. Sev­eral filed suit to slow the project. The school district in­sisted on a $330,000 fee to build new schools — later re­duced — even though the guest work­ers, pre­dom­i­nantly male, would be leav­ing their chil­dren in Mex­ico.

Some res­i­dents sug­gested that a la­bor camp didn’t fit with the town’s his­toric char­ac­ter — even though his­to­ri­ans con­sider it to be one of the best-pre­served “com­pany towns” in Amer­ica, built by sugar baron Claus Spreck­els for a suc­ces­sion of im­mi­grant mill work­ers from Ger­many, Ja­pan and Mex­ico.

No for­eign guest work­ers moved in when Spreck­els Cross­ing opened last sum­mer. Tan­imura & An­tle had ad­ver­tised the guest worker jobs — as re­quired by the U.S. Depart­ment of La­bor — and the com­pany’s U.S.based work­ers leaped at the chance to pay about $125 a month to share a brand-new two-bed­room suite with as many as seven other work­ers.

Rick An­tle, the com­pany’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, says he hopes that Spreck­els Cross­ing “never fills up” with guest work­ers — he’d rather win the com­pe­ti­tion for lo­cal la­bor­ers by of­fer­ing bet­ter hous­ing, higher wages and an em­ployee stock own­er­ship plan.

“The H-2A [pro­gram] is not the an­swer, guys,” An­tle said. “As much as you hear peo­ple say­ing that’s the so­lu­tion, it’s not. That worker is tak­ing his earn­ings and he’s ex­port­ing them to Mex­ico. He’s not spend­ing them lo­cally.”

But Tan­imura & An­tle still re­lies on hun­dreds of guest work­ers for its win­ter fields near the Mex­i­can border — 750 were ap­proved this year, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral data.

“Hope­fully we will be able to elim­i­nate that,” An­tle said.

Af­ford­able hous­ing ad­vo­cates and plan­ning of­fi­cials say if more grow­ers im­i­tate the Spreck­els Cross­ing project, they could put to rest fears of re­viv­ing the postWorld War II “bracero” era, when Mex­i­can work­ers lived in squalid bar­racks.

“It’s beau­ti­ful — I would put fam­ily in there,” said Al­fred Diaz-In­fante, presi-

‘You re­ally had to fight, just to keep a room in a house with a fam­ily.’ —DORA JAN, a let­tuce packer, on the hous­ing cri­sis

Pho­to­graphs by Gary Coron­ado Los An­ge­les Times

DORA JAN, left, Mar­garita Padilla, Maricela Wil­liams, Irma Ramos and Lu­cia Jaques, all of Yuma, Ariz., at the Spreck­els Cross­ing farm­worker hous­ing com­plex built by Tan­imura & An­tle Pro­duce.

GREG FRANCE, right, owner of Mar Vista Berry, in­spects the qual­ity of straw­ber­ries picked by lo­cal work­ers. France re­cruited for­eign guest work­ers un­der the fed­eral H-2A visa pro­gram last year.

Pho­to­graphs by Gary Coron­ado Los An­ge­les Times

JOSÉ GON­ZA­LEZ of Oax­aca, Mex­ico, a lo­cal farm­worker, scur­ries down fur­rows, fill­ing car­ton af­ter car­ton with lush straw­ber­ries for Mar Vista Berry near Guadalupe, Calif. To sup­ple­ment the agri­cul­tural la­bor pool, Cal­i­for­nia re­cruited more than 11,000 guest work­ers last year, largely to pick straw­ber­ries or cut let­tuce.

JOHN RAMIREZ, left, and Henry Mur­ri­eta re­turn to their apart­ment af­ter work­ing in the let­tuce fields near Spreck­els, Calif. Tan­imura & An­tle Pro­duce built the Spreck­els Cross­ing hous­ing com­plex for work­ers.

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