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Grant Puts Roofs Over Farm Families

October 30, 2003|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

After a long day of picking oranges or dates, the farm workers leave the fields behind and grab hammers and nails.

Clustered in groups of 12 families, they spend their evening hours building houses. Months later, each family has a house to call its own -- and a piece of the American Dream.

In Riverside County, the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition is overseeing the construction of 110 such "mutual self-help houses." Now a $1-million grant from the state's housing department will help build 108 more.

"As land prices keep going up, as the cost of construction and government fees continue to rise as they have in California, programs like this become more valuable," said John Mealey, executive director of the coalition. The programs "become more necessary for low-income people to buy homes. There's no other way they can do it."

The coalition is one of several groups to receive farm-worker housing funds made possible by Proposition 46, the $2.1-billion bond measure approved by voters last year. The proposition included $200 million for farm worker housing, about $35 million of which has been awarded.

California is home to an estimated 500,000 farm workers, many of whom earn minimum wage and struggle to keep themselves housed.

"The need is very pronounced," said Matthew O. Franklin, the state's director of Housing and Community Development. "As you go around to a lot of the centers of farm-worker activities, you can see visibly many of them are housed in inadequate situations. Many are literally sleeping outside, sleeping in cars, or, in other cases, they are severely overcrowded. In some ways, this is symptomatic of the broader challenges the state faces, which is fundamentally supply and demand."

The latest round of awards, which Gov. Gray Davis announced this month, totaled $12.2 million and is expected to help build more than 500 housing units in 19 California communities. The Coachella Valley program also uses U.S. Department of Agriculture funds. Families supply about 60% of the labor.

"The labor they put in the house, that's their actual down payment: Sweat equity is their down payment," Mealey said.

Often those applying for the Joe Serna Jr. Farmworker Housing Grant Program are nonprofits or government entities, Franklin said.

The developers build a range of housing, from single-family to rental units built with larger families in mind.

"They really build first-class housing ... that is at an affordable rent and is properly sized for the occupants," he said.

The town of Wasco in Kern County received a $2.9-million award, which will help build Sunset Villa, a 52-unit development of two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments.

Wasco has 199 units of farm-labor housing, with 34 more units under construction, said Patrick Newman, executive director of Wasco Affordable Housing Inc. and executive director of the Wasco Housing Authority.

"We have a very extensive waiting list," Newman said.

The town is home to 2,100 people, a large percentage of whom are farm laborers, who work picking fruit and almonds and harvesting rose bushes, Newman said. Many earn minimum wage.

To qualify for the housing, an applicant must earn at least $3,900 through farm labor, Newman said. There are also maximum income requirements. For example, a family of three with an income of up to $32,700 can qualify.

Other communities that received farm-worker housing grants in the latest round of awards include Brentwood, Contra Costa County, $1.8 million for 96 units; Esparto, Yolo County, $600,000; Salinas, Monterey County, $775,000; Watsonville, Santa Cruz County, $600,000; Chualar, Monterey County, $487,624; and Upper Lake, Lake County, $80,000.

Those awards are expected to help build 444 housing units. Another $900,932 from the CalHomes Program Self-Help Housing Technical Assistance Allocation is expected to help build 133 units for low-income families.

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