A nine-year battle over housing for farm labors at the historic Sespe Ranch near Fillmore appeared to have drawn to a conclusion Wednesday, when a representative of the United Farm Workers signed an agreement promising that residents would vacate the property by June 13.
After that time, the union agreed not to represent residents seeking to assert further right to occupy labor camps that Rivcom, a farming corporation that manages the property, has sought to shut down since buying the sprawling 4,300-acre ranch in 1978.
"It's not over till it's over, but it appears to be over," said the UFW's Ventura County Division Manager, Karl Lawson.
"It's definitely a relief for the UFW, for the people living there and for us too," said Donald D. Dauer, president of Rivcom.
The agreement still must be signed by the 43 union members who, with their families, have refused to leave the ranch after a January deadline set by the company, Lawson said.
But he predicted "that we're going to have 100% participation" among the union members.
The agreement also calls for residents to sign legal documents absolving the ranch's owners and managers of responsibility in the event of injury at in the camps. The houses were condemned in 1980 and are without natural gas.
For its part, the company has agreed to give $500 in relocation expenses to each former employee who leaves by Feb. 8 and $250 to those who leave by March 7.
But the settlement offered little relief for the 35 workers like Agustin Alamillo who two weeks ago packed up their families and left the ranch after Rivcom posted eviction notices on company housing. Later, crews hired by Rivcom gutted vacated houses in the ranch's two farm-labor camps and marked each with a red "X" for demolition.
It was an ironic turn of events for Alamillo and many others.
Nine years ago, Alamillo had stood beside 500 fellow farm laborers who kept a bulldozer from demolishing the clapboard house of a co-worker. On a recent morning, he stood in another line--this time to plead for a cheap apartment replacing his own soon-to-be-demolished clapboard house.
The 48-year-old fruit picker waited at a Fillmore community center to apply for scarce government-subsidized housing with other farm workers evicted two weeks ago from the former Rancho Sespe. The makeshift office of the Ventura County Housing Authority had yet to open, but already members from 26 families stood ahead of him.
Help was unavailable for any of them. A new low-income housing project was to open soon in Meiners Oaks, 20 miles away, but nobody knew exactly when, or how many families would be competing for the 32 available units.
Eviction Notices Posted
At issue had been a state Supreme Court ruling allowing workers to stay in ranch housing until the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board renders its long-pending decision on benefits due the workers after they were illegally denied the right to union representation.
Company officials, however, relied on an ALRB ruling that they said enabled them to tear down the houses, which were condemned in 1980, whenever they want.
As many as 50 Latino families had refused to leave the company houses, saying they again intended to resist eviction efforts, just as they have several times since Rivcom's original attempts to oust them after buying the ranch in 1979. They had hoped to stay on the property until the summer of 1989, when a housing development earmarked for farm workers opens near Piru.
But for Alamillo, a 22-year-resident of the ranch, the battle was over last month. He turned his attention to finding a place to live for himself, his wife and their five children. A daughter, Juana Medina, who is married to another Rivcom employee and also has five children, was evicted Jan. 20 from a separate Rancho Sespe house.
With the men earning between $400 and $800 a month, depending on the amount of work available on the ranch, they could not afford unsubsidized housing in Fillmore, said Alamillo, a native of Mexico who became a naturalized citizen in 1983.
Both families now are crammed into a two-bedroom house in Fillmore with relatives. Seventeen people are sleeping on beds, couches, and floors.
"We still don't know where we're going," Alamillo said in Spanish, clutching a brown paper bag containing identification and half-completed applications for housing.
He is not alone. Although current employees received $1,000 in relocation fees if they left last month, the eviction has left them with few housing options.
Families typically wait between two and three months just to learn whether they qualify for low-income housing, according to Carolyn Briggs, executive director of the Ventura County Housing Authority.
Of those who qualify, only 40% find a rental unit that meets government standards. Fillmore only has 248 housing units that qualify for subsidy and all are taken, she said.