Pitzer Spotlights

2005-2006 Spotlight Archives

Cultivating Homes for Farmworkers

Advocacy groups urge the building of more affordable housing units to support Ventura County's $1-billion agriculture industry

Jessica Arciniega '97
Housing Advocate for farmworkers

By Fred Alvarez
Times Staff Writer

September 26, 2005

In a packed Oxnard College auditorium, a short distance from fields bursting with bell peppers and artichokes, housing advocate Jessica Arciniega urged students last week to think about those who supply the muscle for Ventura County's $1-billion farm industry.

She told them that there are as many as 30,000 farmworkers in the county, many of whom live in cars, tool sheds and garages because of a lack of affordable housing. And while the county's pricey housing market is tough on workers in all sectors, Arciniega said, it's especially hard on farmworkers, some of whom earn as little as $9,000 a year plucking lemons and picking strawberries.

"If we want to have sustainable agriculture in Ventura County, we have to address the issue of housing for farmworkers," said Arciniega, who as coordinator for the House Farm Workers campaign roams the county planting the seeds for advocacy.

"We want to make sure there is a voice for farmworkers and their needs," she said. "We have to start thinking about where our farmworkers are living and how they are living."

By all accounts, that awareness is translating into action. Farmworker housing groups have formed in half of Ventura County's 10 cities, with business leaders, growers, elected officials and others joining an unprecedented push to eliminate the crowded and often dangerous conditions the laborers endure.

Grass-roots efforts to house farmworkers are underway in Ventura, Santa Paula, Oxnard and Camarillo. And this week a farmworker housing group in Fillmore will hold its first meeting, adding another voice to a rising chorus of advocacy on behalf of low-paid laborers.

Corporate travel consultant Nancie Paquin will head the Fillmore group. She decided to get involved earlier this year after watching a short film produced by the Ag Futures Alliance Farm Worker Housing Task Force, which last year launched the House Farm Workers campaign.

The effort involves identifying parcels on which housing can be built, helping shape government policies to make it easier to build farmworker dwellings and advocating on behalf of projects as they come forward.

"I saw the conditions that many of these families were living in, and I just said I need to do something about it," Paquin said. "We're not talking about strangers. We're talking about families with children who go to school with our children."

The increased advocacy comes at an opportune time. Since 1993, when Cabrillo Economic Development Corp. opened the 100-unit Rancho Sespe housing cooperative east of Fillmore, only 31 units of farmworker housing have been built in the county.

But 350 farmworker units are under construction or in the planning stages. When completed, they will boost by about half the number of housing units in the county dedicated to farmworkers and their families.

Projects include a 58-unit south Oxnard development of single-family homes and apartments set to open by year's end and 100 rental units proposed by farming giant Limoneira Co. for its sprawling Santa Paula ranch.

"It's really good to have this many units in the pipeline, and it's just a drop in the bucket," said Karen Flock, housing development director for Cabrillo Economic Development Corp.

The Saticoy-based nonprofit, the county's leading builder of low-income housing, is completing construction of the farmworker project in south Oxnard and has five others in the planning stages. Flock said each would require extensive community support, pointing to the importance of housing groups that have formed in the five cities.

"It's just incredibly valuable for people in the community to understand the need for this and to come out and be supportive," Flock said.

The momentum has been built, in part, by years of arm-twisting by affordable-housing advocates. Lawsuits by legal aid attorneys over the years have prompted commitments to farmworker housing in Oxnard and Camarillo.

The newfound focus also is triggered by a broader concern over housing for all segments of the workforce, as the median home price in Ventura County approaches $700,000 and the average rent tops $1,300 a month.

But largely the interest has been spurred by a growing belief that in order to keep farmers in business — which voters have said they want to do through the adoption of farmland preservation measures — steps must be taken to house those who work the harvest.

In response, county officials have surveyed farmworker housing needs and loosened zoning codes to encourage housing construction for agricultural workers.

Those efforts have been bolstered in recent years by passage of a statewide housing bond, which has funneled nearly $100 million toward construction of more than 5,000 farmworker housing units since 2003. So far, $11 million of that pot has been allocated to Ventura County for construction and rehabilitation of nearly 200 units. Included is a $361,000 grant announced earlier this month to replace a dozen dilapidated trailers owned by farmworkers in south Oxnard.

The attitude shift is most apparent in individual cities, where housing groups have formed and businesses and residents are contributing money to the House Farm Workers campaign.

"There are many different types of players involved now," said corporate consultant Linda Braunschweiger, who heads the Camarillo housing group. Her clients include the nonprofit affordable homebuilder Peoples' Self-Help Housing and Affinity Bank, which has contributed $5,000 to the effort.

"The City Council tends to hear from neighbors who are opposed to certain projects," she said. "What we are doing is trying to bring [housing advocates] to the table so that when a project comes forward, city officials can hear the other side."

In each of the cities, the mission of the farmworker housing groups extends beyond advocacy. Members of each group actively seek to identify parcels on which farmworker housing can be built and help shape government policies to pave the way for construction of more dwellings.

Nowhere are those efforts paying bigger dividends than in Santa Paula, which has three farmworker housing projects, totaling 85 units, working through the planning process. Those projects include a 20-unit apartment development by the Sherman Oaks-based Corp. for Better Housing, scheduled to break ground in a few weeks.

The $12-million project, which has been three years in the making and required seven layers of financing, will consist of units with plush carpet, Whirlpool appliances and granite countertops. Units will rent for 40% to 45% below market rates, or roughly $645 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.

"We are very encouraged that the momentum has changed considerably," said Santa Paula resident Dora Crouch, an author and architectural history professor who heads the local housing group.

"It's a matter of changing peoples' perceptions," she said. "People are beginning to realize that the need for farmworker housing is not just 'their' problem, it's our problem too."

Farm Housing

Since 1993, only 31 units of farmworker housing have been built in Ventura County. Advocacy groups have formed in five of the county's cities to help eliminate the crowded and often dangerous conditions endured by some of the area's 30,000 farm laborers.

Units planned or under construction:
Oxnard: 85
Santa Paula: 85
Fillmore: 20
Camarillo: 40
Ventura: 20
Unincorporated Ventura County: 100
Total: 350

Source: Ag Futures Alliance Farm Worker Housing Task Force

reprinted from The Los Angeles Times, Sept. 26, 2005