Santa Clara County approves affordable housing for ag workers
Morgan Hill Mayor Rich Constantine surveys the future site of Royal Oak Village, an affordable housing development for ag workers, low-income families and unhoused people with special needs. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

South Santa Clara County is home to mushroom farms and fields of garlic. Now the area will house the workers who tend them.

On Thursday, Robert Van Tassle, operations manager of Countryside Mushrooms in Gilroy, picked up some personal items from the site of what was once Royal Oaks Mushrooms in Morgan Hill. He worked there for almost 38 years before it closed in 2018.

“Closing this place almost brings tears to my eyes,” Van Tassle told San José Spotlight.

But Van Tassle isn’t bitter. He’s excited about the Royal Oak Village development to come, which will provide housing for agricultural workers, low-income families and unhoused people. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved the project on Aug. 31, and it’s expected to cost about $49 million including land acquisition and Measure A funding.

The village will feature 73 units, with 30 for farmworkers, 24 for low-income families, 18 for unhoused residents and one for a manager. Developers Urban Housing Communities and Ikaika Ohana plan to begin construction next spring and aim to finish in the fall of 2023.

“It’s a great idea,” Van Tassle said. “I’ve got 40 people at the other farm, including some who came from here. They’re constantly in a battle for a place to stay. A lot of them have to live three, four families together to be able to afford it. They’re always looking for somewhere affordable.”

Morgan Hill Mayor Rich Constantine speaks with Robert Van Tassle, operations manager of Countryside Mushrooms in Gilroy. Van Tassle worked at the defunct Royal Oaks Mushrooms in Morgan Hill for almost 38 years before it closed in 2018. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

An ironic development

Morgan Hill Mayor Rich Constantine finds the development site ironic, especially in Morgan Hill, one of the last bastions of agricultural land in Santa Clara County.

“We want to preserve our farmland and farming, but we also want affordable housing,” Constantine told San José Spotlight. “We’re building affordable housing for farmworkers, but we’re removing farming to do it. That’s the duality, especially of this city.”

More than 8,000 people work in Santa Clara County’s agricultural industry, which contributes about $830 million annually to the economy, according to the county.

Like Van Tassle, Constantine is eager to see the creation of more affordable housing for his community.

“It’s not just the farmworkers,” he said. “It’s the teachers and grocery store clerks. It’s the essential workers, the people we counted on during this pandemic, that need affordable housing. Those are the people who need our help the most.”

In August, county supervisors approved investing $9.9 million from the 2016 affordable housing bond Measure A to develop Royal Oak Village at 15440 Monterey Road in Morgan Hill. Constantine urged supervisors to support the project, and the Morgan Hill City Council unanimously voted to put $400,000 toward it. Constantine is running for county supervisor to ensure South County has representation.

“Farmworker housing is something we’ve been trying to work on for some time, but developers have a hard time getting funding for projects with affordable housing units,” he said. “That’s why bills like Measure A are so helpful.”

Morgan Hill Mayor Rich Constantine sees the irony of building a housing development for farmworkers at a previous farm. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

The need for farmworker housing

Bill Christopher, owner of Christopher Ranch in Gilroy, said by having housing near the workplace, farmworkers can spend less time commuting and more time with their families. He also said the cost of gas is a burden for his farm’s agricultural workers—most of his 800 full-time employees travel far distances to work.

“Having something in Morgan Hill 10 minutes away would benefit them,” Christopher told San José Spotlight. “I’m sure living closer to work is something they would value. We need more ag housing for sure, and if it’s partially subsidized that would be great because it’s so expensive to live in this area.”

To determine the housing needs of farmworkers, the county Planning Department surveyed South County agricultural workers, service providers and the farm bureau in 2014. Stories emerged of farmworkers living in substandard and overcrowded conditions, demonstrating the need for affordable and livable housing, said Rebecca Garcia, housing manager for Morgan Hill.

In January 2018, another farmworker housing survey found an unmet demand for about 700 permanent family residences and 1,400 seasonal farmworkers, Garcia said. Last fall, the Board of Supervisors approved a streamlined permit process for agricultural employee housing.

Christopher wants to see this kind of development replicated in the future.

“Hopefully, this project will go well, and they’ll be able to do more,” he said. “If the county wanted to partner with ag people like us, it would be a great thing to put projects together for the ag community.”

‘We’re talking about the people who put food on our tables’

Consuelo Hernandez, director of the Santa Clara County Office of Supportive Housing, said Royal Oak Village is the culmination of six years of work in partnership with Morgan Hill and Gilroy to determine the need for agricultural housing in South County.

“We did intensive outreach and an assessment survey as a county,” Hernandez said. “It led to zoning changes by the planning department. Once the bond passed, that changed the game.”

Hernandez said there’s great need for affordable housing as agricultural workers and growers tell her they can’t afford to live in the county.

“We’re talking about the people who put food on our tables,” Hernandez said, adding that some farmworkers stay temporarily in hotel and cars. “We have to think about them the same way we think about all extremely low-income households.”

Hernandez said the low-income housing development provides people with a place they can afford to pay rent and stay long-term. She said the county plans to develop low-income and extremely low-income housing in every city with Measure A funds.

Constantine said voters passing Measure A and the county agreeing to use some of its funding for Royal Oak Village are godsends.

“This means the world to anyone who needs to find affordable housing,” Constantine said. “Not only near their work, but just to have a place to live and call home.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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