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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Shortage of Housing for Workers May Hurt Farming

Agriculture: Committee wants county to pursue different types of subsidies to keep industry stable.

March 14, 2001|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Farm-worker housing is in such dwindling supply that it could threaten the stability of Ventura County's $1-billion industry over the next decade, according to a group that advises the county on agricultural policy.

As a result, the Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee is asking the county Board of Supervisors to pursue subsidies to expand housing for farm workers.

Subsidies could be used to help farmers build on-site housing, increase the number of off-site labor camps or expand general affordable housing provided by such groups as Cabrillo Economic Development Corp.

As rents continue to creep up countywide, some growers fear that even workers who don't mind living with several roommates will be squeezed out of the market.

"It's getting a little bit worse every year," said Tom Pecht, a member of the policy committee and a lemon and avocado grower in Oxnard. The five members of the committee were appointed by supervisors.

"If it continues as it is, there won't be people who will come up here and work," he said. "They'll go elsewhere, which would thin out our labor pool. If you don't have pickers, you don't get your product to market. Or you have to turn around and make wages so high that you can't afford to farm."

Supervisor Kathy Long said she supports a study and some subsidies.

"I think there is a shortage and it's going to become more critical," she said. "In order to continue to protect agriculture, we've got to provide more housing for workers. It's not only a good government issue but a moral issue."

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County planners say a growing number of government subsidies are available for farm-worker housing. But before the county can move in that direction, officials need a clearer picture of the situation.

Planners have asked supervisors to fund a detailed study of farm-worker housing and needs in the coming budget year. The board is scheduled to take up that request later this month.

Ellen Brokaw, co-owner of Brokaw Nursery in Ventura, said she supports such a needs assessment if that's what it takes to get more housing built.

"There's a lot of people living in very bad conditions--garages, or many people crowded into one apartment," said Brokaw, whose company employs about 50 workers. "Not too far down the road, we are going to reap the results."

With a hodgepodge of local and federal statistics to sort through, growers and county planners don't yet have a firm assessment of what's needed.

For example, one federal study says 22,000 farm workers are employed in the county each year, while another federal study estimates the number at 35,000.

"There's the migrant farm worker, the seasonal farm worker and the full-time farm worker. And they have different needs," said Kelly Scoles, a senior planner for the county. "No one has really got entirely reliable figures."

However, planners agree on one general trend in Ventura County: The number of farm-worker camps licensed with the state has shrunk over the last two decades, while the number of farm workers has grown.

In 1983, the state licensed 24 camps housing 1,118 farm workers and family members. By last year, only 17 camps housing 728 farm workers were licensed with the state.

They range from a 157-unit camp run by Limoneira in Santa Paula to a 45-bed camp in Oxnard run by a labor contractor to smaller farm camps that house less than a dozen workers.

Growers say that as the industry shifted from directly employing farm workers to hiring them through contractors, the number of on-site camps has shrunk.

Over the same time period, the county has increased its acreage of labor-intensive crops, including strawberries and nursery stock.

Most county farm workers today don't live in camps, but in houses and apartments in cities, largely Oxnard, Santa Paula and Fillmore. That blending with the general population makes it tougher for officials to monitor farm-worker housing.

But advocates say there's no question that thousands of additional housing units for these workers are needed.

"We've been pointing out the need for more affordable housing for farm workers for 30 years," said Eileen McCarthy, staff attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance in Oxnard.

"It's particularly bad in Ventura County because there's such a high median income. And with housing costs skyrocketing, there's a disastrous impact on low-wage workers."

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An average farm worker earns less than $12,000 per year, McCarthy said--too little to afford the county's $1,200 average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment.

McCarthy contends that simply building more subsidized housing isn't enough. Because the county's median income is so high, the threshold to qualify for very-low-income housing is a family income of $34,250, much more than a husband-and-wife farm-worker team might bring home.

"You need to have a different kind of program for how we're going to meet farm-worker need," she said.

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