On most days, Rosalia Martinez finds it unbearable to live in the converted garage she shares with her husband and three young children. It’s a single room without privacy and the rent—$1,350 a month—is a lot more than the farmworker family can afford. But in Greenfield, an agricultural town on California’s central coast, it’s the best they could find.

“It’s uncomfortable, but here we are,” said Martinez. “We want to move, our children need more space, but there are no other homes for rent, there is literally nowhere else to move.”

Martinez’ plight is not unique, as farmworkers throughout California’s agricultural regions face an extraordinary housing shortage. At the end of last year, Governor Gavin Newsom announced with great fanfare that the state would invest over $30 million in upgrading its 24 migrant housing centers. The governor also committed $100 million for the construction and rehabilitation of permanent farmworker housing. The funding comes as the state tries to dig itself out from the pandemic slump while its affordable housing crisis continues to deepen and its share of homeless residents is projected to rise.

But while farmworker housing advocates and developers have welcomed the money, they say much more is needed given the overwhelming scale of the problem and the fact that farmworkers are essential to the productivity of California’s lucrative agricultural sector.

“It’s a significant investment, but we need to do a lot more,” said Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Salinas). “Farmworkers feed our state and our nation every single day and have been doing it for generations . . . but they live in some of the worst conditions imaginable. They are still sleeping in their cars. But now it’s not just individual workers, it’s also their families.”

Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, the executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS), put it more starkly: “The new funding is woefully inadequate—a drop in the bucket,” she told Civil Eats. It’s better than nothing, she added, but “doesn’t begin to match the need.”

Many Farmworkers Families Share a Single Room

“The new funding is woefully inadequate—a drop in the bucket.”

In the early days of California agriculture, farmworkers lived in substandard, deplorable conditions, much like the ones described in the Grapes of Wrath. They shared cramped rooms and shacks in squalid migrant camps, and slept in cars and in the fields.

It turns out, little has changed. Today, California growers rely on approximately 400,000-800,000 farmworkers to churn out more than 400 commodities—including the lion’s share of the country’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Most of those workers now live permanently with their families in the U.S. and earn an average annual pay of $20,500 due to the seasonal nature of their job, and often live in areas that suffer severe shortages of affordable housing.

California is deep in the midst of a state-wide housing crisis and although its cities often get the most attention, the crisis is just as acute in rural areas, where rentals are extremely expensive and hard to find. At one school district in Salinas on the Central Coast, 40 percent of the student population is considered homeless. The housing that’s available is in substandard condition and many farmworkers can’t afford the fees associated with applications and move-in costs, said Sarait Martinez, executive Director of Centro Binacional para el Desarollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, a nonprofit that works with Indigenous farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley and on the Central Coast. Several families often share a small apartment or even a single room—and those are the lucky ones, she said.

“We have families with kids that have been evicted and they have nowhere to go. There are no places available and people don’t have access to shelters until they are on the streets,” said Martinez. “Our families have to constantly move from county to county because they cannot find housing.”

In Greenfield, Martinez and her husband are struggling to get by. They’re seasonal workers and agricultural jobs are scarce during the winter months. She stays home to care for the couple’s 9-month-old baby. Her husband has been out of work, but just last week found a temporary job pruning grape vines for minimum wage. Their landlord just raised the rent by $200. The family has been relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), i.e. food stamps to survive.

“I have no cash in my pocket,” Martinez told Civil Eats. “And I have no idea where we’re going to find enough money to pay the rent. Maybe the lottery?”

Like many in Greenfield, she hails from the Mexican state of Oaxaca and is part of the Indigenous Triqui community. Martinez applied for a unit in a farmworker housing project six years ago. Since then, she has heard nothing back.

Many people are facing similar challenges. California has done little to help agricultural workers and their families find a permanent place to live. The state’s Office of Migrant Services operates 24 migrant housing centers that are scattered throughout California and open during the peak harvest season. The centers offer almost 1,900 rental units that can house up to 11,000 agricultural workers and family members, but that’s likely a tiny fraction of the housing that’s needed.

The state has not created any new migrant housing in decades. And it’s unclear just how much permanent housing would stem the tide of homelessness among farmworkers. California’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) does not have data on how many units are needed statewide, department spokeswoman Alicia Murillo told Civil Eats. In fact, the state hasn’t ever completed a state-wide farmworker housing study.

“It’s the NIMBY response. People love the produce, but they don’t want farmworkers living in their communities.”

In the coastal area of Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties, a consortium of local agencies released their own housing report in 2018 and found that about 73,000 workers live in the two valleys year-round. Most are married and many live with children. An estimated 77 percent live in overcrowded or extremely overcrowded conditions, with multiple families sharing bedrooms, living rooms, garages, and other spaces. Just over 1,000 subsidized farmworker housing units are available to those workers.

The study concluded that an additional 45,600 units of farmworker housing are needed for year-round farmworkers and their families in the two valleys alone to end “stunningly high rates” of overcrowding. Advocates say similar farmworker housing deficits exist in every single agricultural valley in the state.

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