SACRAMENTO — A group of California lawmakers on Tuesday unveiled a bill they say will make it easier for farmers to build safe, family-friendly housing for their workers.
Assembly Bill 1783, also known as the Farmworker Housing Act of 2019, would streamline the process to build farmworker housing on agricultural land by exempting those developments from strict environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Assemblyman Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, who authored the bill, called the current situation with farmworker housing a “humanitarian crisis.”
“In rural Monterey County, in my district, one in 10 students are homeless,” he said. “We have 12 schools where that number is one in five. And at Sherwood Elementary in Salinas, that number is nearly 40 percent.”
Under the proposed law as written, housing projects would be approved by local authorities if they meet quality standards and environmental safeguards. Those standards would be subject to local oversight.
The housing projects would be prohibited in sensitive areas such as wetlands, flood zones and areas where fire is a concern.
The law would further require that the housing be run by a qualified nonprofit housing agency.
In addition, the bill would give those living in farmworker housing rights under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. They would also be subject to tenant rights.
Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau President Brendan Miele said the organization is in full support of the bill.
“Farmworker housing is of critical importance here in Santa Cruz County, especially with the high cost of living,” he said.
Miele said the bill could have the added benefit of attracting much-needed farmworkers to the area, and loosening the already strained housing supply throughout the county.
It will also help ease the housing crisis for low-income farmworkers, in which several families live in single-family residences, Miele said.
According to Rivas, the statewide housing shortage is not confined to the urban areas, but is also a widespread problem in rural areas, and particularly affects the farmworker community.
“This problem is impacting the health and safety of our families and education of our children,” he said.
United Farm Worker President Teresa Romero said the problem began at the beginning of the century and persists today, with many agricultural workers living in “horrible and inadequate housing conditions.”
“Among the people I’ve met in the last year, there are farmworkers living in garages, multiple families in one bedroom apartments, barrack-style housing, roofs so broken down that bats fly in, trailers with no air conditioning that make summer living brutal, and rents that eat up the majority of a family’s pay,” Romero said.
“Now Assembly member Robert Rivas, the grandson of a UFW pioneer, has authored AB 1783, the Farmworker Housing Act of 2019,” Romero said. “AB 1783 proposes two simple solutions – empower good actors to build farmworker housing quickly on the one hand, while preventing state money or benefit from supporting a flawed federal guest worker program.”
Rivas was referring to a portion of the bill that would require some federal funding that comes from the H1-B Visa Program housing to be used for family-friendly farmworker housing.
“Farmworkers are the backbone of our agricultural economy here in California,” Rivas said. “They help feed the entire country. And yet there just are not enough affordable, decent places for them to live. It’s unacceptable.”
AB 1783 passed out of the Assembly Committee on Housing & Community Development on April 2. It now moves for consideration to the Assembly Committee on Local Government.
If the Assembly approves the bill during a full floor vote later this month, it will then move to the Senate for consideration. It would then head to the governor’s desk for a final approval.
AB 1783 was authored by Rivas and co-authored by Senators Ana Caballero, D-Salinas, Scott Weiner D-San Francisco and Maria Durazo, D-Los Angeles.