Monday, February 6, 2023     Volume: 23, Issue: 49

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on June 9th, 2021, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 22, Issue 15 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 22, Issue 15

Santa Maria to look at housing ordinance again after HUD calls it discriminatory

By Malea Martin

After voting not to repeal Santa Maria’s employee housing ordinance, despite the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) determination that parts of it may be discriminatory, City Council members will consider the item again on June 15.

City officials said they’re also now double checking that future employee housing projects—such as a proposed large-scale H-2A dormitory—meet HUD requirements. 

Adopted in June 2019, the employee housing ordinance permits employee housing in multifamily zones, however it requires a conditional use permit in single family zones.

Santa Maria must repeal its employee housing ordinance or face a $400,000 fine from HUD after the federal agency said it may be discriminatory. The ordinance requires a conditional use permit to house H-2A workers in single family zones, though city officials say the majority of workers are housed in local motels.

“There was a great level of public interest in the original adoption of this ordinance,” City Attorney Thomas Watson said at a June 1 City Council meeting. “Candidly, we were concerned that there was going to be a greater level of use of the conditional use permit. And what we found was that the ag employers clearly heard the community: That they did not want to have employee housing in residential areas.”

Since the ordinance’s adoption, there haven’t been any applications for permits to house employees in single family zoned houses, Director of Community Development Chuen Ng said at the June 1 city council meeting.

The council was forced to bring the ordinance back for discussion after the federal government said it may be discriminatory against H-2A workers, foreign agricultural employees who come to work in the U.S. on temporary visas. Many local farmers rely on H-2A workers to fulfill their labor force needs.

On May 20, the city received a consent proposal from HUD, City Public Information Manager Mark van de Kamp told the Sun in an email, “which had determined that the city must repeal and not enforce its employee housing ordinance because by specifically regulating H-2A employers it regulates people from a foreign country who are a federally protected class and may be discriminatory.”

Councilmember Etta Waterfield and Mike Cordero voted in favor of repealing the ordinance on June 1, but both expressed that they only did so because “our hands are literally tied,” as Waterfield put it.

“Had it not been for the federal government coming back and suggesting that we could suffer litigation for this, we would have never brought it back,” Cordero said. “I don’t believe we have a choice in the matter.”

Mayor Alice Patino expressed frustration over HUD’s determination, saying that the council conducted community outreach around the ordinance before it was adopted. 

“We spent several meetings getting input from the community, getting input from the ag community, and coming up with something we thought was real workable,” Patino said. “For the federal government to say we’re being discriminatory really, really bothers me. They are overstretching their arm into our community, telling us how we can and can’t house people, and what we can and can’t do with the consensus of our community.”

Patino and Councilmember Carlos Escobedo both voted against repealing the ordinance. Because Councilmember Gloria Soto was not present, the evenly split vote meant the motion to repeal the ordinance did not pass.

The city will discuss the ordinance again on June 15, van de Kamp told the Sun. If the council still fails to repeal it, the city could face a $400,000 fine from HUD. However, van de Kamp said if the council repeals it this time around, the fine would not be assessed against the city.

The situation is leading city officials to be more scrupulous about potential future H-2A housing projects. The Santa Maria Planning Commission held a study session on June 3 to learn more about a large-scale H-2A housing plan that could house about 3,600 workers, proposed by Dan Blough of Dan Blough Construction, who is also a Santa Barbara County planning commissioner. 

“The employee housing ordinance … we do look at it independently from the proposed project,” Director of Community Development Ng told the Sun. “However, I think given the circumstances, we do want to make sure that we are going to run the project past our HUD representatives and make sure that they do not have any additional concerns. We want to make sure that we have the proper understanding of fair housing law and … err on the side of caution in our review.”

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