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California and the West

In Mecca, a Debate Over Housing

Farming: Migrant workers praise low-cost units, but critics call them a misuse of public funds.


MECCA, Calif. — For migrant worker Ismael Madrigal, a lone apartment complex surrounded by grape fields is a godsend.

In past seasons Madrigal lived in the hills, shivering in structures he made out of cardboard boxes. Or he shared grimy, cheap hotel rooms an hour's drive from the fields. Now, the 51-year-old, who works to send money to his wife and children in the south-central Mexican state of Michoacan, shares a clean, furnished, four-bedroom apartment.

But to Bob Leon, who runs a family-owned grocery store in this tiny town near the Salton Sea, Riverside County's first effort to build permanent housing for migrant farm workers is a misuse of public funds that will leave his town overrun with homeless workers camped out in fields and parking lots come springtime.

Leon and other critics think the county should have spent the $1.7 million that went into the 11 apartments known as Las Mananitas on a tent city with awnings, laundry facilities and showers to serve a greater number of workers.

Leon is already envisioning what will happen in May and June when the grapes are ready to be picked, because the same thing happens every year: Hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, descend on Mecca, with its one-block downtown. They crowd their cars into his store's parking lot for the security of lights and bathe in the murky All American Canal. Riverside County brings in two portable toilets that quickly overflow.

"Unless you've seen it, you can't imagine what a disaster it is. There's crowded conditions, beer, scorching days, and nights that don't drop below 90 degrees. It beats you down," Leon said. "And because of politics, the county spent over a million bucks on housing for 88 people while they'll just watch Mecca drown."

It is a controversy springing up across the state, as counties choose between offering farm towns immediate relief with temporary shelters for homeless workers and investing in permanent housing.

Ken Crawford, a project coordinator with the state Office of Migrant Services, said 900,000 to 1.3-million migrant workers come each year to California, where there is housing for about 20% of them. Housing advocates said they will continue to fight farm worker housing that amounts to little more than refugee camps.

Riverside County originally intended to build a campground to shelter several hundred people. But California Rural Legal Assistance, a nonprofit group representing farm workers, sued the county in 1992, successfully arguing in Riverside County Superior Court that taxpayer money could not be spent on substandard housing.

Tent cities have been proposed from the vineyards of Napa to the cherry orchards of Washington state.

"Tent cities are not a solution. People need safe, decent housing that lasts. We are in favor of emergency shelter, but not as a substitute," said Jan Breidenbach, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Nonprofit Housing. "We are a rich country and we need to do better than Third World conditions for the people who put food on our table."

But Mecca residents said that here, the efforts of lobbyists and lawmakers to improve living conditions for farm workers have only made things worse.

Fifteen years ago, when state regulators cracked down on camps run by growers and implemented stricter safety and sanitary codes, many farm owners closed their camps.

"The straw that broke the camel's back was when I was fined $750 because a worker had unscrewed a light bulb and plugged a radio into the fixture," said Mike Bozick, who owns the grape fields just south of Las Mananitas. He once ran five migrant camps, but said the heavy liability put him out of the housing business in the late 1980s.

After the farm camps closed, illegal trailer parks sprang up. Alarmed by fatal fires caused by haphazard wiring, Riverside County cracked down on safety violations. Park owners closed their facilities rather than bring their properties up to code, sending migrant workers once again to cars and open fields. A compromise was reached earlier this year, but many parks never reopened.

Now the housing crunch is so bad in this area, where the 10-month work season includes summer days with temperatures as high as 120 degrees and winter nights that dip into the 40s, that it is even threatening growers, said Bozick, president of the Desert Grape Growers Assn. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement, Coachella Valley growers have not only been competing for market share with Mexican grapes, they have also been losing skilled grape labor to farms in Mexico.

We've got to provide housing as an incentive to keep workers," he said. "There has to be a way to do it differently, do it better."

Riverside County Supt. Roy Wilson, whose constituency includes Mecca, said that Las Mananitas is at least a step in that direction.

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