Wednesday, September 22, 2021     Volume: 22, Issue: 29

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on August 1st, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 22 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 20, Issue 22

As Santa Maria debates an ordinance to help those displaced by H-2A conversions, locals compete with temporary workers for shelter


It’s just past 6 p.m. when Francisca Vargas walks down the stairs of her house and takes a seat on the edge of an ottoman in the living room. Kids scatter from the room as she reaches for the remote and turns off the TV. She takes a deep breath, and gathers herself after a long day of work in the fields.

Laughter is coming from one of the four bedrooms in the house, and kids are running in a constant flow from room to room, in and out of the front door.

Vargas has a big family—there are nine of them altogether—but as farmworkers in Santa Maria, she and her husband don’t make a lot of money. The place they have now isn’t really big enough for so many people, but they make it work.

They’re just glad to have a home at all. A year ago they didn’t.

Vargas and her family had been renting the same two-bedroom apartment on the west side of Santa Maria since 2012 when they suddenly received an eviction notice in January 2018. Vargas was visiting her grandparents in Mexico when she got a panicked phone call from her oldest daughter, who had been given the letter by their landlord’s employee.

They had 60 days to find a new place.

Vargas rushed back to Santa Maria and immediately started searching, but despite turning in dozens of applications, paying hundreds in application fees, calling property management companies, responding to Craigslist ads, and asking family and friends for help, the 60 days ended with no luck. The landlord gave them a 10-day extension, but still nothing.

“We couldn’t find a place that would rent to us because there are too many of us,” Vargas says in Spanish. “I tried really hard to look, and looked in so many different places, but my last option was to go live with my mom.”

In April 2018, the family packed up all their belongings and piled them into Vargas’ mom’s garage and onto her back patio. Her mom rents out the extra bedrooms in her house, so the family lived and slept in whatever space was available—some on couches in the living room, others in two tool sheds and a playhouse in the backyard.

That’s where they stayed for seven months until they finally found the apartment they have now.

“It was a very hard experience for us,” Vargas says, wiping away tears, “for my whole family.”

Later Vargas found out that her neighbors had been evicted too. She discovered that the building she’d lived in for so many years was being turned into housing for the H-2A program, which allows agricultural employers to bring workers to the United States from foreign countries temporarily.

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. Employers have to provide transportation, meals, and housing—the latter of which has been at the center of a debate over who should be allowed in Santa Maria’s already limited housing since March 2018.

Farmers say the workers are desperately needed, but some community members fear that too many landlords will sell off or rent out their properties to farmers for the higher profits, leaving long-term residents like Vargas and her family with fewer affordable housing options and nowhere to go.

It’s an issue the city has been working on for more than a year now, and that Santa Barbara city and county have already addressed with ordinances requiring property owners to assist tenants displaced by employee housing conversions. Santa Maria is developing a similar set of provisions that could help tenants displaced by H-2A—something both advocacy and agricultural organizations have agreed to support. 

But that change is still in its infancy, and for residents like Vargas, it’s too late.

“There are many families that this has happened to,” Vargas says. “I think the city should pay more attention and care so that we don’t suffer—let alone our children.”

Pushed out

Many of the crops grown in California, and in the Santa Maria Valley especially, are highly labor-intensive. Leafy greens and berries are still hand-picked, and the need for employees willing to do that work is increasing. A long-running shortage of domestic workers has only compounded the situation.

So over the last decade, the agricultural industry has increasingly turned to the H-2A program to supplement its labor supply.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor certified applications for 2,862 H-2A guest workers in California. The Department of Labor has certified applications for nearly four times that many H-2A positions so far this year—1,277 of which were certified in Santa Maria alone, more than in any other city in the state.

The number of applications certified isn’t necessarily equal to the number of H-2A workers currently in California. Employers who want to bring foreign workers to the U.S. first have to submit applications to the Department of Labor proving there are no qualified domestic workers available for the positions offered.

Cost of rent & Number of H-2A positions

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

The prevalence of H-2A housing in Santa Maria has led to community worries about overcrowded houses, crime, decreasing property values, and displaced long-term residents in a tight housing market.

In March 2018, complaints regarding H-2A housing and its growing presence in Santa Maria’s residential neighborhoods sparked the city’s interest about the issue. Several community members told city staff at a meeting on March 20, 2018, that they feared residential property owners would choose to house temporary H-2A workers rather than long-term residents, displacing families like the Vargases.

Agricultural employers and labor contractors—many in desperate need of labor—are willing to pay “extremely large amounts of money” to house H-2A workers, according to a city staff report from 2018, sometimes more than double market price. That incentive, the staff report states, could make it even more difficult for long-term residents to rent or buy property in a city already experiencing a housing shortage.

In an email sent to a disgruntled community member in 2018, Sinco wrote that the city’s concerns with H-2A housing are not so much about overcrowding or crime, but “the powerful economic incentive the demand for H-2A housing is creating to use the city’s limited housing supply for temporary workers rather than local residents.”

That’s what Vargas says happened in her case. She says her former landlords, Isidro and Maria Chavez, told her neighbors that they could make more money renting through the H-2A program. The Chavezes couldn’t be reached before the Sun’s press time, but the state Employment Development Department confirmed that Vargas’ old apartment building is currently being used to house H-2A workers.

Since the issue first came up in 2018, the city has hosted a number of informational forums and public hearings on H-2A, and passed an employee housing ordinance on June 4, which is now in effect.

The newly adopted provisions require property owners or operators to apply for and receive conditional use permits before housing seven or more employees in units located in single-family residential zones. The permitting process could take four to six months, according to the city, and does not apply to facilities in multi-family residential neighborhoods.

Operators of new employee housing facilities within multi-family residential zones must file a statement of acknowledgment form with the city within 30 days of acquiring new properties for employee housing. Owners of already existing employee housing units in any residential zone are required to apply for a ministerial employee housing certificate before Dec. 13 of this year.

According to the city, the provisions are intended to ensure that employee housing “does not have significant negative impacts to the neighborhoods where they are established.”

But some say the provisions won’t do anything to help neighbors themselves, those individuals who have to compete with wealthy business owners for housing.

While the City Council discussed including displacement assistance requirements in the new provisions, they decided against it. Proponents say that vulnerable groups will likely be hit hardest—young families just starting out, seniors, and even domestic farmworkers—which could worsen the labor shortage and lead to an endless cycle.

Helping the displaced

When Vargas and her family were looking for an apartment, they tried everything.

Vargas says she applied for at least 25 properties. After turning in every application—usually with an application fee—the rental agents and landlords always seemed to tell her the same thing: She had too big of a family for the apartments she was applying for.

But Vargas says she rarely saw apartments or homes with more than three bedrooms available, and those larger ones that did exist were too costly for her family’s cumulative annual income of about $40,000.

Vargas and her husband even considered buying, but couldn’t get a loan. They tried to buy in Bakersfield where prices are lower, but they couldn’t find any available work. Then they considered living in Bakersfield and commuting to work in Santa Maria, but their employers told them they had to live within 50 miles of the fields. Agricultural employers are required to offer domestic workers housing locally if the workers don’t live within a reasonable distance of work.

According to the city’s best estimates, in fiscal year 2016-17, about 1,700 guest workers were housed in Santa Maria: 900 in residential dwellings and 800 in hotels or motels.

So they continued the search in Santa Maria.

“It hurt us so much,” Vargas says. “But I tried to not let it affect my children.”

She’d tell them they were staying at their grandma’s for fun. That sleeping in the playhouse was like a game they were playing.

“Only I knew how I felt to see my kids in the little house and sheds,” she says.

Vargas’ experience is the exact kind of situation some community members and organizations like CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy) have been worried about. In April, CAUSE’s community organizing director, Hazel Davalos, sent an email to Santa Maria City Council members outlining a proposal for an ordinance aimed at helping residents displaced by H-2A conversions.

In the proposal, CAUSE said Santa Maria’s limited housing stock is home to a number of lower-income individuals and families, including local farmworkers. Affordable housing is already difficult to find, and it will likely become increasingly scarce as homes and apartment buildings are bought by employers hoping to house temporary H-2A workers.

CAUSE said the city’s new provisions might actually make the situation worse by encouraging employers to use apartment buildings and duplexes in multi-family residential areas for H-2A rather than homes in single-family zones, which are typically out of reach for most low-income families.

That could force farmworkers to look for housing and work elsewhere—like Vargas and her husband did—and if they find it, CAUSE said it could just worsen the ag industry’s labor shortage.

CAUSE suggested that the city require employers or landlords to provide tenants displaced by H-2A conversions with three months’ median market rent, which the organization said would give those displaced the ability to avoid homelessness and pay security deposits and moving costs. It would also discourage mass evictions, CAUSE said in its proposal, and force farmers to consider building new housing developments instead of buying those that already exist.

Other nearby jurisdictions already have similar requirements in place. In Santa Barbara, landlords who convert rental housing into employee housing of any kind are obligated to pay displaced tenants four months’ rent—five months’ if the tenants are considered to be low-income. Landlords with properties in unincorporated areas of Santa Barbara County are required to pay tenants displaced by employee housing three months’ rent.

It’s an idea organizations like CAUSE, People’s Self-Help Housing, and the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties all agree on.

Grower-Shipper President Claire Wineman said the local ag industry has been working with the city on issues related to H-2A housing for quite some time, and the organization’s members agreed to support the three months’ rent displacement requirement for the sake of compromise.

But while City Council members discussed adding a displacement assistance provision in the ordinance that was passed on June 4, they opted to hold off.

The decision came as a disappointment to many, but Ryan Hostetter, Santa Maria’s manager of the planning division, said some sort of help for displaced tenants is being developed.

Hostetter said that although the City Council did discuss displacement provisions, council members have “different schools of thought” on how that should be handled. Hostetter said it’s something city staff are researching.

Although other local jurisdictions have broad displacement policies that affect all employee housing, Hostetter said Santa Maria’s leaders want an ordinance specific to H-2A, and that’s something city staff haven’t been able to find a precedent for. They hope to bring a drafted ordinance forward in the near future that can be reviewed by the City Council and the public.

The lack of affordable housing in general is something the city is always trying to change, and Hostetter said it usually brings on tough conversations. Developers often complain that they’d build more housing if the state didn’t have so many land and building regulations and restrictions, so Hostetter said putting more restrictions on what home builders can and can’t do in an effort to create more housing for low-income residents could actually make the housing market smaller.

Still, she said, something has to be done.

“There are all these symptoms we’re seeing as a result of the lack of housing,” Hostetter said, “and especially affordable housing.”

The argument over H-2A is just one of them.

Not completely safe

Despite a devastating few months last year, Vargas and her family seem happy where they are now.

Although their new place is nearly $700 more each month, it has more space and it’s in better shape, and Vargas says her kids are doing well here. The experience of near homelessness was hardest on them. All of their bad experiences with housing have been hardest on the kids.

Though they had lived in their last apartment for years, Vargas says that place wasn’t easy to find either. She and her husband had to tell the landlord they only had three kids so they’d be accepted. 

So for years, every time Vargas saw her landlord or one of his employees walk up to the house, she’d tell her kids to hurry up and hide behind the bushes in the backyard, behind the curtains, or in the closet. They’re in a new apartment now where every family member is allowed, but some of the kids still run to hide when a stranger comes over.

   When they were evicted and living with Vargas’ mom, she says she could tell how difficult that time was for the kids. It was cramped, the tool sheds and playhouse were tiny and hot, and the kids asked her every day after school if she had found a new place to live. They tried to be strong, but she could tell they were ashamed and uncomfortable.

Vargas still cries when she talks about it.

Vargas says she knows some other families who have been displaced by H-2A conversions, but she knows many more who are struggling simply because there is so little housing available, and most of what does exist is unaffordable.

Many of the crops grown in the Santa Maria Valley are highly labor-intensive and have to be handpicked. Because of that and a long-running shortage of domestic workers, the agricultural industry has increasingly turned to the H-2A program.

As defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, housing is considered affordable when a person pays no more than 30 percent of his or her income toward housing costs, including utilities.

The majority of California renters pay far more than 30 percent of their income toward rent, according to “California’s Housing Future: Challenges and Opportunities,” a statewide housing assessment published in January 2017. Nearly one-third of the state’s renters pay more than 50 percent of their income toward rent, according to the assessment, and 43 percent of all California households are considered low-income.

Santa Maria is no different.

Many residents live two or three families to a house, Vargas says. Some rent out their living rooms and bedrooms to strangers because one family can’t pay rent alone, giving children in those families less space to play and study quietly and feel safe. Vargas says her kids have classmates who live on the street or in cars.

The city should be doing more to build housing for everyone, Vargas says, not just foreign workers and wealthy people.

While things are good for Vargas and her family now, she’s not sure they’ll ever feel completely safe or comfortable in a rental again.

“Because every day we fear we’ll get that letter that says we’ll have to leave by a certain amount of days,” she says. “And where are we going to go?” 

Contact Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash at

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