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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on April 10th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 6 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 20, Issue 6

Community rallies to halt temporary ban on farmworker housing

By CHRIS MCGUINNES


HOUSING SHOWDOWN
The Santa Maria City Council declined to vote on a temporary ban on housing H-2A farmworkers in local hotels and motels, after opponents of the ban filled a recent meeting to protest its passage.
PHOTO BY CHRIS MCGUINNESS

When he stood in front of a packed house on April 2, Andy Patel was honest about his initial misgivings in allowing H-2A farmworkers to live at the De Ville Motel on Broadway, which he owns and operates.

“I was quite reticent and very hesitant about having them there,” Patel told members of the Santa Maria City Council. “But they actually ended up being model tenants for us.”

Patel was one of nearly 20 people who showed up to the meeting to support the H-2A workers and to speak out against a proposed urgency ordinance that would have temporarily banned further use of city’s hotels and motels to house them. Among the group opposing the moratorium were farmers, community advocates, and hotel and motel owners and operators like Patel, who told the council he thought the idea of a ban, even a temporary one, was myopic, given how well behaved his H-2A tenants were.

“We did not have to call the police one single time,” he said.

The H-2A program allows nonimmigrant workers into the U.S. on a temporary basis to perform seasonal agricultural work. Santa Maria gets a large population of H-2A workers. City staff estimated that as many as 2,000 of them are housed in the city for up to 10 months each year.

For the last several years, many of those workers have lived in local hotels and motels along Broadway, which were purchased and converted into living spaces for them. That began as early as 2015, when Betteravia Farms bought a former Budget Inn Motel at 1100 North Broadway to house its workers. More conversions followed, while other companies also began to house their workers in residential homes and apartments.

“Undoubtedly, the use by local agricultural employers of the H-2A program has created some challenges for the city due to the significant number of workers that require housing,” Interim City Attorney Phil Sinco told members of the council at the meeting.

According to Sinco, about 53 percent of H-2A workers in the city lived in older hotels and motels. The proposed moratorium, which Mayor Alice Patino placed on the meeting’s agenda, would have banned new future use of any hotel, motel, or efficiency unit in the city to house H-2A workers for 45 days, with the option to extended it for another 10 months and 15 days after a vote by council.

Patino said she asked for the temporary moratorium to give the city time to “stop and take a breath” while it considered long-term regulations for H-2A housing. The council is set to vote on a permanent ordinance related to H-2A housing in residential zones on April 16.

“I thought we better put the brakes on and see what we have,” Patino said.

A small number of residents who packed the meeting agreed, including Ernest Armenta. He said he didn’t support a permanent ban but said a temporary moratorium would allow the city time to address the issue properly. Failure to do so, he claimed, could end disastrously.

“You don’t want a ballot measure asking yes or no [on farmworker housing], because I assure you, you will lose,” he said.

Councilmember Etta Waterfield also sided with Patino. She noted that many of the companies using the hotels and motels in the city had farms located on county land. Waterfield said it was unfair to place the burden of the industry’s housing needs on the backs of Santa Marians.

“Residents all over the city of Santa Maria do not care for this program,” Waterfield said.
Those residents did not show up to the meeting in force. Of the more than 20 speakers, two told the council that they favored the temporary moratorium. Instead, many like Patel told the council about the value of having the workers living in older hotels and motels, some of which had fallen into sorry states prior to receiving the investment.

“The H-2A program allowed us to update our hotel and stop it from falling into disrepair and becoming a derelict nuisance like the old Budget Inn,” he said.

Resident David Dennis said he lived near one of the converted motels and that he believed it improved the area.
“We need these people in our community,” he said.
Councilmember Gloria Soto appeared to side with the bulk of the commenters, and questioned what emergency necessitated the passage of an urgency ordinance. She added that her parents were farmworkers and that agriculture helped “put a roof over our heads and food on our table.”

“At the end of the day, H-2A [farmworkers] are a part of our community,” she said. “They contribute to our economy by paying taxes, shopping our stores, … being a part of Santa Maria.”

Ultimately, the council opted not to vote on the urgency ordinance. Council members will be voting on regulations for residential H-2A housing on April 16, and Sinco said that city staff is also planning to tackle housing in nonresidential areas next.

“Staff has always intended to study the use of commercial areas for H-2A housing after the residential component was resolved,” he said.

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@santamariasun.com.




Weekly Poll
Should the proposed aquifer exemption in Cat Canyon be approved?

Yes—the water from the proposed area can't serve as drinking water.
No—oil containments could still pollute usable groundwater.
Additional oil and gas projects can create more jobs.
We need to move away from oil and gas and look at renewable energy projects.

| Poll Results