Farm worker housing: 200 units planned

02/23/2012

It was almost milking time on a blustery afternoon last week at the Bianchini Ranch, in the hills north of Point Reyes Station, when a young Latino worker in sunglasses and a blue jacket began corralling the herd on a four-wheeler. He drove in one direction close behind the grazing cows then doubled back, repeating the process until all 200 or so animals were advancing at a brisk pace up the road toward the milking shed. Not 30 feet away, across a narrow dirt road from the pasture, another man and two young boys relaxed outside their small mobile home. The man sat silently on the porch while the boys played with a miniature truck, rolling the orange toy slowly back and forth across the ground.

There are five houses available for workers and their families on the 800-acre organic dairy farm owned and operated by John Taylor and his wife, Karen, multiple generation ranchers who live with their own children in a quaint farmhouse on the property. The Taylors have the infrastructure to support two more houses on the ranch—which would mean an additional pair of workers who John says would be instrumental in helping the business grow into its next phase, processing its own products. But like many local farmers and ranchers, they don’t have the cash.

Help may be on the way. Last week the Marin Community Foundation (MCF) announced a plan to fund construction or improvements of 200 units of local agricultural worker housing in the next five years, with work slated to begin by this fall. The foundation currently has $1 million set aside for the project.

“What we want to do is invite ranchers and farmers who may want to do two things: Improve and expand or otherwise make better housing that they need to have available for ag workers, [and] to sit down and have a conversation with us about how we might be able to put together a package,” MCF president and CEO Thomas Peters said.

“The thing we want to emphasize is we want to work with each individual rancher or farmer to tailor something that works for them.”

For the Bianchini Ranch, that would likely mean fixing up one currently uninhabited house—a dilapidated building now used as a storage shed—and adding one new building. The new unit, Taylor said, could be erected in a vacant space adjacent to the others, easily hooking up to existing utility and septic systems.     

“We could put one in here right away,” he said, pointing to a patch of uncut grass immediately behind an occupied trailer. “That one’s the low-hanging fruit. It just needs a little mow job. I usually put in cows—they’re the best mowers.”

The housing project is intended to address gapingly inadequate living conditions for many of West Marin’s agricultural workers, an issue that has long been a blight on one of the state’s wealthiest counties.

“Over the years people have acknowledged, ‘Boy, this is a problem.’ This is some of the most challenged housing anywhere in the county, so that’s been known for a long time,” Peters said.

“Some of it is in very rough shape, and while it provides a roof over your head, it just really is sub-par, below-grade housing. And I think for all the reasons of fairness and of recognition that these workers are making some pretty important contributions—to ranches and farms and also contributing to the economy of Marin—they deserve to be in better housing.”

One hundred seventy-two out of an estimated 500 Marin farm workers responded to a 2011 survey commissioned by the MCF and administered by the California Housing Development Corporation (CHDC). Virtually all of the respondents, CHDC housing and economic development manager Linda Hedstrom said, reported at least one defect with their home: 29 percent, for example, cited insects, mice or other pests; 38 percent reported bad mold or mildew. In voluntary inspections of 30 farm worker homes carried out as part of a 2008 study to determine grant funding, Hedstrom said 25 homes were uninhabitable based on minimum housing standards.    

“There were definitely some units where no one should be living in there. And there were—there were lots of people living in there,” Hedstrom said. 

The living conditions of farm workers—the backbone of one of the county’s most heralded industries—offer a disturbing glimpse of ethnic and socioeconomic inequality in Marin, a divide often ignored by the area’s culturally dominant white community. 

Carlos Porrata, a former MCF trustee and a prominent advocate for West Marin’s Latino community who played a key role in planning the housing project, hopes the MCF initiative will be the beginning of a larger move toward equity in the county. “In reality this is the first time that we’re starting to truly address some of the inequality issues that we have with this particular segment of our community,” Porrata said. “Part of what this program is doing is bringing the conversation a little bit into the light.”

Paradoxically, even as the MCF survey respondents reported problems in their homes, 70 percent said that they were satisfied with their housing. Porrata believes the discrepancy in the figures comes in part from the modesty of most workers’ backgrounds—barebones living conditions and a culture that emphasizes gratitude—but also from a widespread fear of speaking out. “Would you complain if [the bosses] would tell you: ‘If you don’t like it, I’ll get another worker—I’ll get your family out of here in three days because I want to put somebody else in this house’?” Porrata asked.

Juan Francisco “Paco” Aceves, who has worked at local oyster farms the past 11 years, has seen his share of poor housing conditions: collapsing roofs, unsafe floors—even explosions owing to leaked fuel.

“I have heard about people that when they’re turning the heater on, because it’s been sitting there for so long [and] the connection was leaking—so when they tried to start it again—Whoosh!” Aceves said, his face lighting up to mimic the blast. 

The area’s many illegal workers, Aceves added, are particularly vulnerable. “Most of them are kind of afraid to say what they think,” he said. “Pretty much they will work for anything, or live in whatever conditions sometimes, because everybody, especially right now, is focusing on their own [survival].” 

The rent agricultural workers pay—especially by Marin standards—is extremely low. At Drakes Bay Oyster Company, where Aceves has worked for the past year, employees who live in a number of on-site mobile homes—houses owner Kevin Lunny described as safe and respectable, if not particularly aesthetic—pay only $200 per month, an affordable sum even on an farm worker’s salary.

Taylor, who is also the president of the Marin County Farm Bureau, said a full-time employee who makes minimum wage can legally pay a maximum of $451 per month for rent, with the employer covering any difference. Considering that new housing units routinely cost over $100,000, the MCF funding represents something of a golden opportunity not only for workers but for well-intentioned—but cash-strapped—ranchers  who are otherwise unable to provide additional affordable housing.  

“We value our employees,” Taylor said. “We want to do as much as we can and still be sustainable. It’s tough—it’s tough for everybody right now.”

For the moment, at least, the shortage in local affordable housing means many West Marin farm workers are forced into long commutes. Aceves lives with his family in a manufactured home in Tomales, commuting an hour and a half round-trip every day. “If I had the chance to live closer in a good, safe place, definitely [I would],” he said. “It makes a lot of difference—even for my wife, she works at the Point Reyes Clinic—if we can save that trip, it will make a lot of difference.”

Quality, affordable housing does exist for at least some local farm workers. Just across the parking lot from where Aceves takes customers’ orders in his Drakes Bay sweatshirt and above-waist rubber boots, is a large, manicured home. Jorge Mata, who came to Marin from Jalisco, Mexico in 1984 and has worked for the oyster company ever since, has lived there the past eight years, moving in after the birth of his youngest child. Because of his extensive contributions to the company over the years, manager Scott Yancy explained, Mata doesn’t pay rent.

On a recent day off, three generations of the Mata family were lounging comfortably inside the large living room. Jorge’s wife, Verónica, also originally from Jalisco, folded laundry and chatted with daughter Ruby, the TV humming in the background; the youngest member of the family, Ruby’s infant, napped on a sofa. “The house is really good,” the soft-spoken Jorge said. “It’s in perfect condition.” 

The Matas, of course, have no plans of moving anytime soon. But other families may soon have a chance to establish their own lives in West Marin. Taylor, for one—grateful for the harmonious coexistence his own family enjoys with his employees—is hopeful. “They’re great families,” he said. “All the kids are on the ranch—we have a big playset. It’s kind of our own little community.”

 

Informational meetings about the project will be held at 7 p.m. Monday, March 5 at the Dance Palace Community Center and Thursday, March 15 at Tomales Town Hall.