Assemblyman Rivas creates bill to help Santa Clara County farmworkers
Elvira and Rogelio Lona sit in their Gilroy apartment where they have lived for more than 30 years. The couple says they feel fortunate to have secure housing when many other farmworker families struggle to find decent shelter. Photo by Carina Woudenberg.

    Lack of affordable housing in the state’s urban areas is a well-documented phenomenon. However, Assemblyman Robert Rivas — who represents a central California district extending south from Morgan Hill — wants to see housing concerns addressed in the state’s rural pockets as well.

    “Housing is probably the most important issue of the moment,” Rivas said in a recent interview with San José Spotlight. “There’s so much emphasis on how housing is impacting people on an urban level. Very rarely would you read about the issue from a rural perspective.”

    And although most people don’t think of farmworkers when they think of Silicon Valley, families here are impacted — particularly those living in South County.

    Rivas himself grew up in farmworker housing. His grandfather emigrated from Mexico in the early 1950s and the young future politician shared an overcrowded two-bedroom apartment with 10 members of his family near the agricultural land near where his grandfather worked.

    “It was a roof over our heads and that meant everything for me and my family,” said Rivas. “It gave me an opportunity for a better life and that’s really all we can ask for.”

    Gilroy resident Rogelio Lona is a farmworker who works for Monterey Mushroom Inc. in Morgan Hill for nearly 45 years. As a member of the United Farm Workers labor union, Lona says he’s fortunate to receive a host of benefits, including medical and life insurance, and paid sick and vacation time. He says his company also provides retirement and pension pay, allowing him to retire in the next year or so while he’s in his early 70s.

    He and his wife Elvira have also been fortunate to live in an apartment complex that exclusively houses farmworkers. The couple raised their two daughters there who are now in their early 30s.

    Lona understands that this is often not the case for many immigrants who come to the country at a disadvantage and often struggle to find housing.

    “I’m lucky,” Lona said. “It’s not fair for a human being, I think.”

    Rivas, who was elected to the Legislature last year, fears that this is not the case for many agricultural workers and their families today.

    According to recent studies conducted in the Salinas and Pajaro valleys, families are living in cars and overcrowded conditions averaging seven people per household, Rivas said. In one instance, 40 people were living in a three bedroom house that contained only two bathrooms.

    Rivas’ bill, AB 1783 — also known as the Farm Worker Housing Act of 2019 — eases the housing crunch by creating a streamlined process that eliminates the need for a conditional use permit for farmworker housing on agricultural land. Rivas’ bill passed the Assembly last month and is now headed to the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, and possibly the Senate floor later this summer.

    Under the bill, the farmworker housing must be managed by a qualified affordable housing organization, that the employer cannot serve as the landlord and the new housing cannot include barrack or gender-specific boarding, such as dorms for men.

    The new law would be optional to farm owners who would still have the ability to pursue development projects under the current laws.

    Countless homeless students in the region are also flooding into farmworker communities, Rivas said. For example, in 12 schools in Monterey County, more than 20 percent of the student population is homeless. At one school in Salinas, nearly 40 percent of the students are considered homeless.

    Rivas acknowledges that his bill is one step closer to addressing the housing crisis.

    If the bill is signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Rivas says he hopes to see it go into effect early next year.

    “It’s a necessary first step,” Rivas said. “Housing is the missing factor to help stabilize labor for farmers… ultimately it cuts down the red tape.”

    Contact Carina Woudenberg at [email protected] or follow @carinaew on Twitter.

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