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PORTSIDE  December 2011, Week 1

PORTSIDE December 2011, Week 1

Subject:

Exposing the Shame: A Critical Look At Farm Worker Housing

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Date:

Mon, 5 Dec 2011 00:28:15 -0500

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Exposing the Shame: A Critical Look At Farm Worker Housing
By Gail Wadsworth
Civil Eats
December 1st, 2011  
http://civileats.com/2011/12/01/exposing-the-shame-a-critical-look-at-farm-worker-housing/

There is a sense of pride in this trailer park and the
public spaces surrounding the trailers are, for the most
part, pleasant, and clean. But it's clear that the
trailers are old and in some cases unsafe. In fact,
there are a couple of trailers that have collapsed and
are sitting in place with the contents extruding. This
is home to a community of farm workers and their
families just outside of Stockton, California.

In this site, the residents own their own trailers. When
compared to many other U.S. farm workers, they are a
lucky group. All across the country farm workers face
housing challenges. For those who care about a
sustainable food system, understanding where the workers
who produce your food live and supporting policies to
abolish substandard conditions for workers is essential.

At the trailer park in Stockton, trailers had had no gas
to operate stoves and hot water heaters for over 45
days. In some cases, residents were building fires
outside to cook and heat water for washing. The septic
systems from several of the units had failed and leaked
sewage onto the ground outside. According to several
long-term residents, the management routinely breaks
promises to improve services. The health department and
building inspectors appear blind to violations. But,
according to residents, the sheriff remains at the ready
for evictions. Trailer owners are reluctant to withhold
rent for their lots and are also unwilling to complain
to county officials because they fear their trailers
will be condemned and they will lose their investment
and homes.

Another example of farm worker housing in the Stockton
area is an urban squatter camp beneath an underpass
between a low-income neighborhood and an industrial
zone. Situated 15 feet below the grade of the street the
makeshift shacks are hidden from view. The water source
for the residents of this camp is a leaking valve that
has been tapped and is being piped into an open hole in
the ground. It's not clear how many people live in this
camp but many of the residents work in nearby farm
fields.

There is a marked absence of current, scientifically
rigorous research to inform policy aimed at developing
strategies to provide safe and affordable housing for
foreign-born U.S. farm laborers. In fact, in California,
where a majority of U.S. farm workers live, there has
been no statewide survey of farm labor housing
conditions and certainly no thorough investigation of
farm labor housing has been completed nationally.
Evidence shows that the current farm laborer population
differs significantly from the population for whom
housing policy was created.

Recent Economic Research Services assessments of hired
farm workers reveal a higher proportion who are
undocumented and foreign-born than in the past. In
addition, the majority of these workers are "settled"
workers who do not migrate with the crops. "Follow-the-
crop" migrants, for whom most housing policy is devised,
actually comprise less than 12 percent of this
workforce. According to the Farm Labor Survey, between
1950 and 2006, the number of family members working on
farms declined, while the number of hired farmworkers
per farm increased.

The federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker
Protection Act requires that each person who owns or
controls housing specifically provided to migrant farm
workers must ensure that the facility complies with the
federal and state safety and health standards covering
that housing. Migrant housing may not be occupied until
it has been inspected and certified to meet those
standards. So, regulated migrant housing tends to be of
high quality.

Here is the current state of farm worker housing
programs in some major agricultural states taken from
data supplied by the respective state housing agencies.

Florida

Every year, approximately 150,000 to 200,000 migrant and
seasonal farm workers and their families travel and work
in Florida. Currently, the Florida migrant labor camp
program issues over 700 permits that ensure housing that
meets or exceeds legal standards for 34,000 migrant and
seasonal farm workers, and their families. That's
assured safe housing for only 17 percent of the seasonal
agricultural workforce in that state.

Texas

There are an estimated 212,112 migrant farm workers and
family members in Texas households. Right now, 31
migrant labor housing facilities, licensed by the Texas
housing department, provide housing to a total of 3,245
persons. That's housing for 1.5 percent of the estimated
population of farm workers. Because of the great
difference between the estimated number of migrant farm
workers and the amount of housing provided by licensed
facilities, the majority of farm workers and their
families live in rented houses, apartments, motels,
travel trailers, shacks, tents or even automobiles.

California

Currently, there are 24 public migrant housing centers
in California exclusively reserved for the use of
families, with no provision whatsoever for unaccompanied
workers. Typically open for only six months during the
local peak agricultural season, these labor camps
altogether provide housing for 1,903 families.
Prospective residents must have traveled at least 75
miles from their permanent place of residence and meet
strict low-income requirements. Most centers are under
the administration of a county housing authority.

The exclusion of unaccompanied and undocumented workers
from the units that were built or rehabilitated with
federal funds indicates that the vast majority of
today's migrant farm laborers are ineligible for public
housing. Despite substantial increases in farm labor
employment and shifts in the regions where workers are
needed, the number of facilities in the state have
decreased by two since 2000 reducing the number of units
by 204.

Washington

In Washington, the population of migrant and seasonal
farm workers and their family members is estimated at
289,000 individuals in 67,000 farm worker households. Of
these, 70 percent live permanently in the state. A study
to determine the population of farm workers in each
county in the state and the need for housing shows a gap
in housing in all counties ranging from less than 1 to
24 percent new units needed. Once the study was
complete, the state set about creating a strategy to
fund and build the needed units.

In 2003, the Washington State farm worker housing trust,
a nonprofit, was formed to address the housing issue. As
of 2008, the trust and its housing authority partners
working with funding from state and federal programs had
developed 1,002 community-based farm worker homes in 34
developments. The Trust continues to work at expanding
housing development, developing tools to increase
financing through public and private means and
supporting local communities to create partnerships
among farm businesses, farm worker advocates, affordable
housing providers and others to create a more
sustainable model for agricultural communities.

Nationwide

There are estimated to be three million migrant and
seasonal farm workers at any given time in the United
States. According to the Economic Research Service,
housing conditions have long been substandard and there
has not been any improvement in recent years. Despite an
increased demand for hired farm laborers, farmers have
become less likely to provide housing for them. The
foreign-born share of the U.S. farm labor force has
doubled within the past four decades. During that same
time period, there has been a substantial decline in
employer-provided housing for farm laborers, especially
for those employed on a seasonal basis. The factors
responsible for this housing decline include an employer
response to strict regulations, the increase of farm
labor contractors (FLC), and the Latinization of rural
America.

Federal, state, and local housing development policies
need to be enacted that encourage creation of farm
worker housing. Agencies responsible for enforcing fair
housing laws need to have the authority, motivation and
resources available to prevent substandard conditions.
Long-term financial commitments are needed in order to
develop new housing and improve existing housing
quality.

Government agencies can encourage the formation of
coalitions to develop cooperative housing specifically
for the agricultural worker population. Trust funds can
be generated in a number of creative ways with funding
earmarked for farm worker housing. But a stable,
renewable source of funds needs to exist at all levels
of government for affordable housing in rural regions.
This development will only occur when policy is
developed to address these issues. If you care about a
sustainable food system, you should care about where the
workers who produce your food live. Support policies
that work to abolish substandard conditions for workers.

The living conditions faced by farm laborers in the U.S.
expose the shame of spatial inequity experienced by
rural regions. As long as the people who work in the
fields where our food is produced live in unhealthy and
unsafe conditions, our food system will never be
sustainable.

___________________________________________

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