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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on June 12th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 15 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 20, Issue 15

Santa Maria is close to passing an H-2A housing ordinance, but the issue isn't settled yet

By CAMILLIA LANHAM

Main Street Produce was expecting its first crew of H-2A workers to arrive when the conversation over the federal foreign worker program exploded in Santa Maria.


HOT SEAT
The Santa Maria City Council passed an employee housing ordinance on June 4 that covers where H-2A workers can be housed in the city, and how many can occupy a housing unit.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

“We were just kind of dipping our toes in the water to try it last year,” Alexandra Allen said. “I was just kind of struck by what seemed to me to be the fundamental unfairness with which we were being characterized.” 

Allen works on the legal side of things for the agricultural company that she and her husband own in Santa Maria. She spoke at the March 2018 meeting where the City Council passed an urgency moratorium on housing more than six temporary agricultural workers in single-family and medium-density neighborhoods. 

The moratorium was a direct hit to six months of paperwork, vetting, and compliance checks. Workers were already contracted, en route, and slated to begin their temporary jobs for Main Street in April 2018. The Allens were planning on housing 10 workers per house in homes that their family already owned in the city. 

Although the City Council let the urgency moratorium expire in May 2018, it set the stage for a long citywide discussion over the H-2A program, agriculture’s role in the community, and what, if any, employee housing should be allowed in Santa Maria. 

Over the last decade, the agricultural industry has increasingly turned to the federal temporary guest worker program to supplement its labor supply. The H-2A program, established in the early 1980s, allows employers to legally bring temporary employees to the United States from another country. Those workers go through background checks for criminal history in both the U.S. and their country of origin and sign contracts guaranteeing a specific income and period of work. And employers have to provide housing, transportation, and either catered meals or an adequate kitchen facility. Program regulations also require employers to provide at least 50 square feet of sleeping space to each employee, laundry facilities, and bathrooms with at least one showerhead per 10 workers. 

“You have to make decisions months in advance of what you’re going to do,” Allen told the Sun. “You can’t just make last-minute changes.

Main Street had 20 to 25 H-2A workers arrive on June 1 of this year, Allen said, and they’ve been working on it since last fall. The discussion that’s evolved in the city over the past several months has been important, Allen said, and she believes the city’s staff has been patient in hearing all sides. But, she added, sometimes it’s hard to hear the complaints that people have leveled at the ag industry and its employees. 

Comments made at that first meeting in March 2018 against housing guest workers in Santa Maria have been echoed in the forums and meetings that followed. Some city residents are worried about overcrowded houses, unruly and unsafe neighbors, crime, property values, and displaced long-term residents in a tight housing market. 

“To my knowledge, there haven’t been real complaints from people, just concerns about what could happen,” Allen told the Sun. “It really doesn’t feel good to me to hear comments in terms of ‘these people.’ That’s from a dark part of American history.”

According to the city’s best estimates, in fiscal year 2016-17, about 1,700 guest workers were housed in Santa Maria; 900 were in residential dwellings, and 800 were in hotels or motels. Interim City Attorney Phil Sinco told the Sun that maybe 60 percent of those workers were housing in R-1 zones—single-family residential neighborhoods. 

“Unfortunately, we are kind of at the forefront. Not a lot of cities in California have had to deal with this like we have,” Sinco said. “Salinas has, but after Salinas, we’re the most impacted by H-2A.” 

Nervous neighbors


SPEAKING UP
Carlos Castaneda spoke during a November 2018 forum about the H-2A program and employee housing in Santa Maria. For the last five to six years, his labor contracting firm, Castaneda and Sons, has housed temporary workers in Santa Maria who they brought into the country through the federal H-2A program.
FILE PHOTO BY SPENCER COLE

Sinco said a number of complaints have been lodged by residents who live in single-family residential zones. Most of the complaints, he said, come from people who own their homes. 

“It’s partly because it stands out there more than it does in other neighborhoods,” Sinco said. “Most of the complaints we have received, if not all, about H-2A housing have turned out not to be H-2A housing.”

As far as he knows, Sinco said, no H-2A workers have been arrested in Santa Maria, and there haven’t been any code enforcement issues, although a few workers have been sent back to their home countries due to bad behavior. The houses are well-maintained and quiet, and the workers are usually gone before most people get up, he said. 

“I think the farmers have done a good job of showing that these are not villains, these are not bad people,” Sinco said. “But neighbors are still nervous about bunked housing.” 


EQUALITY
City Councilmember Etta Waterfield was the lone vote against the employee housing ordinance on June 4, advocating for all residential areas of the city to be treated in the same manner.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

The city hosted five H-2A forums over the last year and a half and has had a couple of public hearings on an employee housing ordinance, which the City Council passed 4-1 on June 4, with Councilmember Etta Waterfield voting against it. A second reading of the ordinance is scheduled for June 18. 

The city has come a long way from the days of a moratorium on housing H-2A workers. Although the ordinance does limit the number of workers that can be housed in single-family residential units to seven, it allows employers to apply for a conditional-use permit to house more (which would involve holding a public hearing). There aren’t any limits placed in the medium- and high-density areas of the city known as R-2 and R-3 zones, which is one of the reasons that Waterfield said she voted against the ordinance. Another reason is that the ordinance didn’t include any noticing requirements for housing H-2A workers unless the employer wants to house more than seven in a single-family home. 

“R-1 gets special treatment, and R-2 and R-3 are just getting thrown out there,” Waterfield told the Sun. “They should all have the same rights as R-1s. A lot of the constituents have come to us—I should say, have come to me—just even for noticing. ... Notice the neighborhood. Let the neighborhood have their fair share of say in the whole thing.”

Some residents who spoke on the issue during public comment at the April 16 City Council meeting said they thought they should be notified if a home was going to be sold and used for H-2A purposes or if housing was going to be converted to accommodate guest workers. Allen from Main Street Produce spoke during public comment at that meeting, responding to her fellow city residents.

“You never get to approve your neighbors before they move in,” Allen said. “This is probably the only time that your neighbors get a background check before moving in.”


THE FACTS
During the June 4 City Council meeting, when discussing whether to require landlords to financially assist displaced long-term tenants, Councilmember Mike Cordero said he’d only heard that one person in the city had been displaced because of H-2A housing.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

After public comment was over, Councilmember Mike Cordero responded to some of the speakers calling for noticing requirements by saying that the City Council doesn’t get to decide whether someone is allowed to purchase a property. 

“We’ve got no voice on what the sale is that some property owner has,” Cordero said. “These individuals that come here to do this work are not illegal aliens. They’re here on a visa; they have every single right that you or anyone else has.” 

The call for noticing, though, Waterfield told the Sun, has to do with businesses operating in residential neighborhoods. Housing H-2A workers is part of the cost of doing business with the federal program. It’s employee housing.

“Businesses are coming into neighborhoods. You couldn’t come into your own home and sell stuff that a convenience store would sell and have people drive in and out,” Waterfield said. “I’m all for profit, but my gosh, I don’t want business in my backyard.”

Economics of housing

Waterfield wonders why farmers can’t house farmworkers on their land, in the county, outside of city limits. 

“I just wish the farmers would make more effort into placing people onto their own properties where they pick the fruits. You know, you can bring in tiny homes, tiny modulars, just like the Bracero Program used to do,” she said. “They could all go in together and build some type of housing. ... You’ve got a lot of growers here who could go in on that and pay for it.” 

The Bracero Program ended in 1964 after 22 years of allowing short-term labor contracts between the agricultural industry in the U.S. and workers from Mexico. One of the issues with the program was the poor conditions where some of the laborers were housed, overcrowded and dilapidated quarters that workers had to pay rent to live in. 

Santa Barbara County is working on loosening the permitting restrictions for housing workers in agriculturally zoned areas, but it’s not easy to build housing on ag land. An H-2A housing complex approved in Orcutt in 2016 was shelved by Betteravia Farms due to the cost of building, permitting, installing the sewer, and other necessities, according to Joe Leonard, the company’s chief executive officer who spoke at one of Santa Maria’s H-2A forums earlier this year. 

Others are also advocating for the agricultural industry to house the employees they need on agricultural land. One woman who spoke during public comment at the City Council’s June 4 meeting talked about the housing crisis and long-term renters being displaced by H-2A workers. 

“There’s nowhere to go here,” she said. “These ranchers are coming in to pay cash. These families that are living here, they’re not going to be able to do that. ... These field workers are here temporarily. Why not put them in a place where the ranchers can provide their housing?”

Allen from Main Street Produce told the Sun that what famers can pay to laborers and for housing is relegated by the revenue they bring in. The cost of building on agricultural land is much more expensive than it would be to purchase a house and remodel it or even build an apartment complex in town. Farmers certainly wouldn’t be paying more to bring in labor and house them if they weren’t desperate for workers. And farmers definitely aren’t paying cash for anything, she said. 

“I can’t help but chuckle when I hear about the rich farmers,” she said during public comment at the June 4 meeting. “There is a cap on the economics of how this works.”

Whatever money the companies are spending to house H-2A workers has to make the most economic sense, Allen told the Sun. The state of California’s recent decisions to increase minimum wage and decrease the number of hours that farmworkers are allowed to work before overtime has put more strain on the bottom line for a lot of farmers. Plus, the fate of the H-2A program is unclear, as it’s been roped into the immigration discussion at the federal level. 

The uncertainty of their labor situation is something that makes agricultural companies hesitant to put a lot of money into building housing in areas where it can’t be repurposed, Allen told the Sun

“Why would you do that if the federal program and the direction of it is uncertain?” she asked. “There are real, substantive factors that need to be weighed.” 

Displacement

Carlos Castaneda of Castaneda and Sons, a labor contracting company, told the Sun that they’ve been operating H-2A housing in the city for more than five years and haven’t had any issues with code enforcement or law enforcement. 

“Zero calls for public service. We have a fantastic, a fantastic group that we work with,” Castaneda said. 

He said he gets upset when he hears complaints that housing guest workers in neighborhoods is going to bring property values down. What agricultural employers are doing is bringing property values up. 

Castaneda and Sons has cleaned up and remodeled dilapidated or abandoned homes in Santa Maria and repurposed them for H-2A housing, he said. He can think of one location that had 18 code violations before they bought it, and another that had up to 300 calls for public service for a stabbing, drugs, and prostitution. He said he and his father have picked up things like heroin needles. 

“We’re going into neighborhoods that the developers don’t go into because they don’t get a return on their investment,” Castaneda said. “It just makes economical sense for us.”

The labor contracting company also has three new building projects currently under construction in Santa Maria. They’re being used for H-2A, he said, but the units are being built as apartments. 

“We’re not taking any inventory off the market,” he said. “That’s inventory that stays there. ... When automation starts to surpass the need for hand labor, that inventory is going to be here to stay.” 

Hazel Davalos, the community organizing director for Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), is worried that the booming demand for H-2A housing creates an incentive for landlords to convert their buildings to house seasonal workers rather than renting to long-term residents. 

“Displacement of rental units will particularly impact our fixed-income seniors, our young people starting out on their own, and our low- and moderate-income working families including farmworkers,” she wrote in an email to the Sun. “One of the main reasons for the need for H-2A is it’s become harder and harder for local farmworkers to find affordable apartments to rent in Santa Maria. If our low-cost rental housing stock is converted into H-2A housing, it will worsen the shortage of local workers, resulting in farms needing even more H-2A, and create an endless cycle.”

Some farmers argue that limiting the number of H-2A workers that can live in a house also takes valuable housing units off the market because it forces the agricultural industry to house fewer workers in more units. 

However, CAUSE and others—such as Peoples’ Self-Help Housing and even the ag industry members of the Grower-Shipper Association of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties—support a solution that requires landlords to provide financial support for up to three months to any displaced tenants forced to move because the homes they are renting get converted to H-2A housing. Although the City Council debated whether to include mandating displacement assistance in the ordinance that was passed on June 4, they opted to hold off and possibly make it a separate ordinance.

“I’m disappointed because it’s clearly so intertwined with and complementary to the general employee housing policy, as it works to ensure that the general policy doesn’t have unintended negative consequences on local families,” Davalos said. 

Interim City Attorney Sinco said there’s a complicated answer as to why displacement assistance should be considered in a separate ordinance, but the short answer is that adding displacement to the current iteration of the employee housing ordinance would require another change to the city’s zoning code. Changes to the zoning code have to be approved by the Planning Commission, which would delay passage of the ordinance even further. 

In addition to the ordinance focused on residential H-2A housing, the city is also looking to craft an ordinance that will focus on H-2A housing in commercial areas, such as hotels and motels. 

Chuen Ng, Santa Maria’s director of community development, said the city would most likely host more H-2A forums in the future and hopefully begin crafting an ordinance that can be passed before the end of the year. 

“We want to get the residential housing ordinance through and let it settle for a bit,” Ng said. 

Reach Editor Camillia Lanham at clanham@santamariasun.com




Weekly Poll
Guadalupe is in the midst of new development, but is that a good thing?

No. The new homes will expand the town too much and run the small-town vibe.
No. Commercial development will follow and destroy all the local businesses.
Yes. The town can't survive another economic downturn without more business and residents in town.
Yes, but the town has to steer development toward tourism and the hospitality industry.

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