We recently mentioned that North County is a people magnet, and the up-county population is racing ahead of South County’s growth.
The reasonable question is — where are these newcomers going to live? Perhaps more specifically, what is North County decision-makers’ strategy for accommodating housing needs of farmworkers?
Housing costs, both for local buyers and renters, have skyrocketed since 2000, which puts a lot of strain on middle-income families. But imagine the strain on local farmers, who must find seasonal workers to tend to crops, in a region in which policy makers can’t seem to agree on a housing strategy for such workers.
The problem of just finding enough workers to handle crops is bad enough, but even when farmers arrange for a field crew, where are they supposed to live while the work is being done?
One program designed to help growers find the help they need is the federal government’s H-2A worker certification process for temporary help. During the past year, this state’s ag sector got approval for nearly 19,000 such workers, a huge increase over the previous 12-month period.
H-2A would seem to be ideal for growers, but there are problems. In fact, many local farmers consider going the H-2A route as a “last resort,” as one ag industry spokesperson phrased it.
The biggest issue for growers is that H-2A has a lot of hoops to jump through. First, employers must prove they can’t fill the jobs with locally available workers without negatively affecting wage and working conditions for the local labor pool. That part is relatively easy.
The most daunting hurdle is providing housing for such workers, as required by federal law. Santa Maria is moving forward on an ordinance to regulate farmworker housing specific to the H-2A program, but the city’s plan has hit some snags.
First, putting temporary farmworkers in residential neighborhood homes has met considerable resistance. The ag industry isn’t happy about the proposed ordinance’s permitting process that could drag on for months, in an industry where owners have to make quick decisions about how many workers to hire.
All of which points to two conclusions: First, this area needs a lot more low-income housing outside of existing single-family residential neighborhoods, and designed specifically for seasonal farm crews. Second, the city’s policy makers need to listen to the ag industry’s plea for a more flexible approach than is included in the current H-2A housing ordinance proposal.
And the very obvious reason these factors need to be taken into account in the creation of rules is that local agriculture is the backbone of this region’s economy. Without it we are committed to a future of an all-out tourism-based economy, with its abundance of lower-paying jobs.
The current H-2A housing situation is woefully inadequate. There were 1,700 H-2A workers in Santa Maria during the 2016-17 fiscal year, about 900 of whom were housed in residential dwellings, with the remainder living in hotels or motels.
It seems evident that the city’s H-2A worker housing solution remains a work in progress, or at least it should be, just as the general lack of affordable housing in North County is a problem for decision makers and for this fast-growing region.
The Planning Commission approved the proposed ordinance last week, moving the measure along to the City Council. This is a decision our elected leaders must get right. The ag industry is too important to the local economy to be saddled with unworkable rules.