The Mercury News

Salinas Valley setting standard for farmworker housing

- By Luis A. Alejo Luis A. Alejo is chair of the Monterey County Board of Supervisor­s.

Th deaths of seven farmworker­s in Half Moon Bay in January revealed an ugly truth: There are parts of our state where our essential, agricultur­al workers still live in deplorable conditions. There are no permits, no inspection­s, and conditions are substandar­d. But building dignified farmworker housing in California is no easy task.

A 2018 study on the farmworker housing in the Salinas and Pajaro Valleys alone revealed a need for 45,560 units of housing to alleviate overcrowdi­ng in farmworker households in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. The need is only increasing as more agricultur­al employers are resorting to the H2A guest worker program to fill a vacuum in a worsening labor shortage.

But building farmworker housing in coastal counties is not easy. Such projects often face permitting process delays, NIMBY opposition and even lawsuits after an approval.

However, something remarkable is happening in the Salinas Valley. Agricultur­al employers, in the renowned “Salad Bowl of the World,” are setting the high standard for farmworker housing for the nation. Farmers are leading by fully funding a growing number of employer-sponsored farmworker housing projects for their workforce.

The first project was constructe­d by local agricultur­e giant, Tanimura & Antle, in 2015 in Spreckels, just outside Salinas, to provide housing for up to 800 of its domestic and H2A guest workers. The project faced NIMBYism and some of the worst stereotype­s about farmworker­s. Some nearby residents alleged that the project would attract drugs and alcohol, prostituti­on, loitering, harassment of school children, traffic, among other nuisances. None of those concerns ever came true.

What's more remarkable beyond fully paying all constructi­on costs, Tanimura & Antle also fully furnished the apartments, along with furniture, cookware, smart TVs and cable and internet service. The exterior included manicured lawns, barbecue pits and picnic areas, a soccer and baseball field, a laundry room and a well-equipped recreation room. The Salinas Adult School later partnered to bring English as a Second Language classes to the campus.

Since then, other farmers have followed suit. The Nunes Company built a complex for 600 workers in North Salinas. A collective of farmers built another for 1,200 workers also in North Salinas. Two other projects are being completed in Greenfield and King City in South Monterey County for another 1,000 workers. Altogether, these five projects will provide housing for up to 3,600 farmworker­s, leaving other existing housing stock available for the community-at-large.

The units are being constructe­d by Avila Constructi­on, which has been perfecting its model with each new project. Good management and security of the apartment complexes have prevented complaints from neighbors.

But there is only one thing farmers have asked from county and city government­s: Help them prioritize and expedite the permitting process. So, in June 2021, my colleague, Supervisor Chris Lopez, and I pushed to formalize and created a county program to do just that, making it one of the first in the nation.

Despite this local success, fervent opposition continues. The latest project in the north Monterey County community of Pajaro for another 361 workers was approved in December by the Board of Supervisor­s but faced organized opposition. The project was ultimately downsized, agricultur­al buffers were expanded and constructi­on height was raised due to the entire community being located in a flood zone. But a lawsuit has recently been filed to stop the project, citing alleged violations of the California Environmen­tal Quality Act law (CEQA), an issue that must be better addressed in Sacramento.

Fortunatel­y, that is not deterring our farmers. Several more projects are on their way and will soon be seeking approvals, all aiming to create the same high standard of farmworker housing. Local government­s throughout our nation should look to the new Salinas Valley model of farmworker housing and facilitate building the same beautiful, dignified housing for its essential workforce.

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