County funds new farmworker units

David Briggs
A unoccupied trailer on the Bianchini Ranch outside Point Reyes Station could be replaced under a plan to provide new farmworker housing.

The Marin County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a $250,000 grant to help a collaborative project working to replace, improve and maintain dilapidated agricultural employee housing on the coast. The funding enables the replacement or construction of 20 units on 12 volunteering ranches, according to county Community Development Agency principal planner, Leelee Thomas.

Supporters of the Marin Agricultural Housing Program say the Housing Trust grant will allow struggling cattle ranches, dairies, farms, poultries and mariculture operations—and the low-income people employed and living there, often with family—to see the economic and quality-of-life benefits that come from upgraded

The Housing Trust Fund, which is governed by county supervisors, generates money from certain county-assessed development fees.

“Our Board’s action will bring improved workforce housing, starting this year,” Supervisor Steve Kinsey said by email. “It also leverages other funds, allowing the program to go forward beyond the initial beneficiaries. This commitment reflects our Board’s ongoing investment in keeping agriculture viable in our County.”

A county survey of agriculture-workers’ housing found that many of the properties met the federal government’s definition of “dilapidated,” according to Linda Hedstrom, housing and economic development manager for California Human Development Corporation, whose Santa Rosa-based group received the grant.

Ms. Hedstrom described seeing properties with holes in the floor and ceiling, no stairs to the front door and extension cords providing electricity.

Ranches are often unable to upgrade the properties because of high costs and fluctuating revenue. Lack of affordable and useful housing can prevent them from finding workers.

“If you’ve got a lot of pregnant cows and sheep, and they’re ready to give birth, you can’t have a worker who maybe is on call but lives hours away and have that worker get there as quickly as you need,” Ms. Hedstrom said. “Good agricultural practices need good agricultural workers and one way to keep those workers and have those workers available at the odd or seasonal hours you often need those workers is to have that housing available and in proximity to the place of work.”

The program, run in conjunction with the Marin Community Foundation and the Marin Workforce Housing Trust, provides engineers, technical consulting and help getting access to funds to private land in unincorporated West Marin. But the ranchers will be financing the large part of the development cost, with the help of forgivable loans provided by the program and one-percent-interest loans by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We love to have our organic beef and our wine and our wonderful cheeses and all the agricultural products,” Ms. Hedstrom said. “But it comes at a price.”