Farmworkers working in the fields
In this March 24, 2020, photo, farmworkers keep their distance from each other as they work at the Heringer Estates Family Vineyards and Winery in Clarksburg, Calif. Farms continue to operate as essential businesses that supply food to California and much of the country as schools, restaurants and stores shutter over the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

    Citing a severe shortage of housing for farmworkers, Santa Clara County has paved the way to build more units by relaxing zoning and streamlining the permitting process.

    There are about 400,000 to 800,000 migrant farmworkers living and working in California. But while some counties have an idea of how many workers live in and travel through their borders, there is no solid estimate of how there are in Santa Clara County at any given time.

    In the 1990s, the county expected a need for about 2,800 new agricultural housing units — both single family and group housing — in the next 15 years. Today, there are still less than 1,800.

    A “unit” is a loose term that can mean a house, mobile home, apartment or even a separate room within an apartment. Only two new farmworker group housing projects have been built in the past decade.

    “Whatever we do, we have to be able to fast track it,” Board of Supervisors President Cindy Chavez told San José Spotlight. “How we have only (1,800 units) shows to me that we have a problem.”

    Darlene Tenes, an organizer and advocate with the Farmworker Caravan, said it’s not just housing at stake, it’s life and death.

    “(Farmworkers) have a very short lifespan compared to other people because everything of they’re surrounded by such as pesticides,” Tenes said.

    She cited how most farmworkers continued long days of labor while smoke choked California’s air and everyone else retreated inside. In addition, she said, more than 80% of female farmworkers have reported sexual harassment while on a job site. Shelter, sanitation and safe spaces can help mitigate these risks, she said.

    “We have a lot more migrant farmworkers than people realize. I don’t think people have any idea,” Tenes said. “It’s a shadow community because many are undocumented and some of them are from indigenous communities, so they don’t speak Spanish. Basically, they’re not going to go to government agencies to get HUD money or other government services.”

    Until the zoning changes approved by the Board of Supervisors Oct. 20, only permanent farm housing was allowed. Projects required a use permit that cost $14,000 and took up to nine months to receive. Permanent housing includes both single family homes or buildings that are set up like apartments with common areas.

    The county will now require a simpler and cheaper special permit or planning clearance, costing $500 to $6,000, depending on whether the project is for short-term or long-term housing.

    “(This proposal) has choices. It doesn’t assume there’s one way to really address it,” Chavez said. “It allows for individuals to determine the best approach themselves. If you have (1,800) designated needs for housing, you’re not able to use one approach.”

    The lack of housing for farmworkers and their families has been an ongoing issue statewide. Last year, legislators passed AB 1783, also known as the Farm Worker Housing Act of 2019. The law, which went into effect in January, eliminated the need for a conditional use permit for building farmworker housing on agricultural land.

    “There are some workers that are homeless, others that are multiple families or individuals that are renting a room,” Tenes said. “An entire family will be living in one room.”

    A 2018 study identified an average monthly workforce of 60,000 workers in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, and those populations could pass through Santa Clara County at any time on the way to work different crops in different parts of the state.

    “These families are living in crowded circumstances, with two or three families to one house,” said Angela Di Novella, development director for Catholic Charities Diocese Monterey, an active farmworker rights advocate. “And they’re still without the capacity to afford a house with basic conditions.”

    Temporary and seasonal projects would be able to use an even faster permit system and stay on a farm site for five years. To qualify, the housing would have to either be a moveable tiny home or an RV with access to a kitchen and running water on site. Seasonal housing would have to be occupied at least 180 days out of the year.

    “I can’t think of better timing than to have this come for right now, not in the joyous sense but that this need is more acute than it ever was under the pandemic,” said Supervisor Dave Cortese.

    Chavez and Supervisor Joe Simitian asked for additional reports from county staff to find out how many individuals and families can begin to take advantage of new housing, and to make sure new developments are being used for their intended purpose.

    “There are mechanisms to make sure housing is available for agricultural uses, and no one is turning them into an Airbnb,” Chavez said.

    Supervisors meetings are recorded and can be viewed here.

    Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] and follow her @MadelynGReese

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