Farmworker housing initiative fell short of ambitious goal

06/30/2021

Farmworker housing advocates are facing some hard lessons from a pilot project that fell drastically short of its goal. Starting in 2012, a collaborative between the Marin Community Foundation and Marin County used a combination of public and private funds to build and renovate agricultural worker housing on ranches in West Marin. The group initially planned to fund 200 units within five years, but later sharply reduced the goal to 20 units. 

In the end, only a dozen units were built, while the need for more affordable housing never went away. 

“There were a number of lessons learned, including that using public funding on private land is really challenging,” said Leelee Thomas, the planning manager with the Marin County Community Development Agency who led the project. 

Agricultural jobs are sometimes more desirable than other jobs in West Marin because they usually come with housing. On dairy farms in particular, it’s essential that workers live onsite or very nearby. 

“They need to work two shifts,” said Socorro Romo, executive director of West Marin Community Services. “What they do is basically eat, sleep and work.” A commute simply does not fit into the schedule. 

But having one’s housing tied to one’s work also presents a challenge. “When they lose their job, they lose their house,” Ms. Romo said. 

By 2012, a number of ranches in West Marin had shuttered, including Drakes Bay Oyster Farm, which displaced 32 workers. At the same time, the Marin Community Foundation had been preparing to spur a project to remedy the ongoing need for farmworker housing.

A collaborative led by M.C.F. and the county involved a host of organizations, including West Marin Community Services, the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin, the Marin County Farm Bureau, the West Marin Fund and the Marin Agricultural Land Trust.

Through the pilot project, the group tried to secure long-term, low-interest loans from the United States Department of Agriculture for ranchers to build housing. M.C.F. contributed $1 million, and property owners had to match the funding for each unit with either cash, land or utilities costs. Current workers would be prioritized, and no worker would pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent. 

But in most cases, restrictions on the federal funds proved prohibitive. “With that model, it wasn’t feasible,” Ms. Thomas said.

Johnathan Logan, the vice president of community engagement at M.C.F., said a 2015 post-mortem report on the project found that a lack of funds available for private land was the biggest obstacle. Public financing was simply too restrictive.

The project did result in the construction or renovation of some units. One unit was replaced on the historic J Ranch, two were rehabilitated at Toluma Farms in Tomales, three were built at the Giacomini dairy, two at Bivalve Dairy, one at Stubbs Vineyard, and two at the Straus dairy. They’re nearly all still occupied, and all but two are rent-free for the workers who live there. 

Tim Kehoe, whose family has been ranching at the J Ranch for 100 years, said the project allowed him to replace an aging trailer with a new manufactured home built by Little House on the Trailer, a Petaluma-based business. He secured funding from the county and M.C.F., and provided $10,000 to $15,000 in kind. Although he leases public land, he wasn’t eligible for a U.S.D.A. loan since his five-year lease was much shorter than the 30-year term of the loan. 

Mr. Kehoe doesn’t charge rent for the unit, and he pays all the utilities himself.

At Toluma Farms, dairy farmers Tamara Hicks and David Jablons didn’t qualify for a U.S.D.A. loan because of their income, which is boosted by Mr. Jablons’s job as chief of thoracic surgery at U.C.S.F. They began rehabilitating two housing units on their farm but, Ms. Hicks said, it has been too expensive to finish. In the meantime, they’ve housed some workers rent-free in units they own in Tomales and Dillon Beach. 

John Taylor, who runs Bivalve Dairy with his wife, Karen, replaced two older manufactured homes with a duplex manufactured by Karsten in 2015. The county put up the funding for the permit cycle, and initially told Mr. Taylor that the units would be funded by a U.S.D.A. loan. The Taylors paid for the unit themselves, but the restrictions of the loan turned out to be too burdensome, requiring them to work with the land’s other owners, Ms. Taylor’s family, to put a lien on the property.  

“We were left holding the bag, going, ‘Okay, we just built this house,’” he said. 

Mr. Taylor charges rent on the two units, docking it from workers’ wages. 

Straus Family Creamery founder Albert Straus was part of the farmworker housing collaborative and had two three-bedroom manufactured houses built on his dairy in Marshall as a result. A turnover in the project’s management interrupted the process of getting a U.S.D.A. loan, and although the county waived certain fees and expedited the process, he had to take out a loan from his own bank. Mr. Straus doesn’t charge rent. 

He said the project was not a long-term solution for the needs of workers and farmers. It went through three managers while he was involved, and faced various obstacles to funding in the form of federal, county and state requirements.

“The management wasn’t ideal, and the execution wasn’t ideal either,” Mr. Straus said. 

This spring, Mr. Straus moved the creamery operation to Petaluma, closer to where he said many employees already live. His attention is still trained on affordable housing projects in West Marin, and he is working with the county on a potential development in Tomales. “It’s not only ag worker housing, it’s affordable housing,” he said of the problem. “The whole community’s housing needs have become extreme.”

One dairy did meet the conditions for a low-interest U.S.D.A. loan: Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. Co-owner Lynn Giacomini Stray was able to replace three modular homes for workers on the property. “We were happy that we qualified, and we really would like to see more of that,” she said.

The dairy doesn’t charge rent or utilities, and Ms. Stray said she’d like to see more affordable housing options close to or on ranches and farms in West Marin. “Our employees have to be close to work, because animals are a 24-hour operation,” she said.

Ms. Thomas said there were “some things we could learn from that project that would still be feasible,” but the county and M.C.F. are now primarily focused on off-ranch affordable housing in West Marin. Of the units that CLAM will develop on the former Coast Guard property in Point Reyes Station, a certain number may be set aside specifically for agricultural workers. 

Mr. Logan, who arrived at M.C.F. in 2016, said the foundation’s report acknowledged that the 2012 project had not come close to meeting the need for farmworker housing.

Before the pandemic hit, the collaborative had reopened the conversation and was planning a needs assessment study. Mr. Logan said the group will likely meet again within the next month. They plan to survey the number of farmworkers and housing units in Marin and to identify more opportunities for housing on private land. Funding is still an obstacle, however, with regulations on public monies often onerous for private farmers. 

Ms. Thomas said she doesn’t know of a source of public housing funding meant for private landowners.  

One group may be able to exert particular influence on farmworker housing through financial incentives: the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, which has control over the development rights for 54,000 acres of Marin farmland. 

“MALT needs to play a role in this,” Mr. Logan said. 

Jennifer Carlin, MALT’s director of advancement, wrote in an email that the trust “believes that everyone engaged in the agricultural value chain deserves a dignified living, including a safe and healthy place to live.” MALT’s easements allow any agricultural infrastructure that’s necessary to support the farming operation, including housing for workers.

Ms. Carlin said MALT is continuing to meet with M.C.F. and other groups as part of the collaborative, but the trust doesn’t have its own committee to address housing needs.