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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on April 10th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 6 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 19, Issue 6

Santa Maria City Council further restricts H-2A housing in residential neighborhoods

By KASEY BUBNASH

The Santa Maria City Council unanimously voted on March 20 to temporarily prohibit property owners from housing more than six H-2A guest workers in units located in single-family and medium-density residential zoning districts, effective immediately.

Although the recently approved urgency ordinance will expire in early May, Assistant City Attorney Philip Sinco said he expects council members to extend the ban at a meeting on April 17 for more than 10 months.

“My goal and City Council’s goal is to come up with a workable solution that all parties can live with,” Sinco told the Sun.

The temporary ban, he said, will give city staff much needed time to investigate H-2A housing in R-1 and R-2 zoning districts and its potential economic consequences, many of which have only recently become apparent to city officials.

Several recent complaints regarding H-2A housing and its growing presence in Santa Maria’s residential neighborhoods sparked the city’s interest in the issue, Sinco said.

In one case, long-term Santa Maria resident Jeanie Garcia said her neighbors—a family of seven—were forced out of their residential rental because the property owner wanted to make more money housing 28 H-2A workers. That incident was included in Sinco’s staff report, but he told the Sun later that it could not be confirmed.

In another situation, according to Sinco’s staff report, city officials were told that a local property owner attempted to house 16 H-2A workers in a single-family unit while charging the agricultural employer about $500 a month per worker. After the March 20 meeting, Sinco said he contacted the property owner in question, who had actually wanted 12 workers in the unit but settled for 10 due to H-2A space restrictions.

Still, Sinco said the apparent economic incentive for owners of residential property to house H-2A workers rather than long-term residents is concerning. Agricultural employers and labor contractors—many that are in desperate need of labor—are willing to pay huge sums of money to house H-2A workers, Sinco said, sometimes more than double market price.

That incentive, Sinco said, could make it even more difficult for long-term residents to rent or buy property in a city already experiencing a housing shortage. According to statistics included in Sinco’s staff report, only 4 percent of Santa Maria’s rental properties were vacant as of December 2016.

Long-term residents shouldn’t have to compete with H-2A workers, Sinco said, who often stay in town for less than a year and invest less in the community’s longevity in general. And after hearing several complaints, Sinco said city staff felt urgent action was needed in order to “maintain the status quo” while further investigating the issue.

“We’re not trying to cause problems for people,” Sinco said. “We’re trying to solve problems.”

But that’s not how the council’s action felt to many local farmers. Several spoke out against the ban at the March 20 meeting.

Jason Sharrett, a Santa Maria resident and representative of the California Strawberry Commission, said the urgency ordinance was rushed and unnecessary.

“Industry and stakeholders have not been given time to review the proposal nor was there a notice to stakeholders,” Sharrett said at the meeting. “We are further concerned that the proposed urgency ordinance appears to be based upon erroneous findings that are in conflict with the city’s own staff report.”

Town rumors, Sharrett said, shouldn’t warrant such a drastic legislative move.

Local farmer Alexandra Allen said she contracted with several H-2A workers months ago. Employers are required to complete H-2A program contracts months in advance and the workers, she said, were literally en route to California during the meeting. The ban for her could mean major financial losses.

Allen also said she houses H-2A workers in residential units she owns, and the ordinance would only worsen the city’s housing issue. With the ordinance approved, Allen said she’ll need two units to house 12 workers rather than just one, further crowding the rental market.

Noe Contreras, a lifelong Santa Maria resident and representative of Savino and Big F farms, said local farmers predominately rent their land, which hampers them from developing H-2A housing near or on farm land. He also said many farmers are just barely staying afloat as it is.

“I feel that this program is how we’re getting by during this labor shortage,” Contreras said at the meeting. “We have been feeling the effects for the last five years, and I think this has been the only way we’ve been able to keep our doors open.”

But Hazel Davalos, community organizing director of Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), said she and other advocates support the city’s attempt to slow down use of residential homes for H-2A housing.

Davalos said H-2A workers are extremely vulnerable—they rely on their employers for food, housing, pay, and transportation—and rarely speak out against their bosses no matter how poor conditions are. And while some city officials have suggested housing workers outside city limits on farms, Davalos said that would only further isolate workers from resources they may need.

“So I think generally, when it comes to the H-2A program, we have some real concerns and precautions that we think should be taken,” Davalos said. “The program itself countrywide has been fraught with abuses.”

Davalos said that ideally, farmers would increase wages or offer housing subsidies to entice the local workforce, thus investing in the local economy.

But for now, Assistant City Attorney Sinco said he and other city staff plan to work with local farmers and property owners on a case-by-case basis regarding the ban, though it’s still unclear how it will be enforced or when.

“I don’t like the term ‘grandfathered-in,’” he said, but some property owners will be allowed to house more than six H-2A workers “for the time being.”

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@santamariasun.com.




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