A farmworker picks strawberries.
(USDA photo by Lance Cheung)
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Legislators seeking ideas to help solve housing crisis for farm and hospitality workers

Two assembly members, one of whom represents part of Santa Cruz County, are continuing a statewide tour next week aimed at finding ways for legislation to help solve the state’s housing crisis. The invite-only meetings are with housing advocates and stakeholders, but a public report based on the findings will be published later in October.

Two legislators are continuing their invite-only statewide tour in the Central Coast region next week to help them come up with laws to address the state’s housing and homelessness issues, specifically related to the region’s agricultural and hospitality workforce.

Assemblymembers Tim Grayson (D-Concord) and Robert Rivas (D-Salinas) formed the Assembly Housing Working Group late last month, kicking things off with a meeting in Concord this week.

The group’s second visit is scheduled for Oct. 4 in Salinas and Big Sur, focusing on the agricultural and hospitality workforces. A meeting the following day in Morgan Hill will look into potential redevelopment projects. The in-person meetings, which are closed to the public, include legislators, local advocates and key housing stakeholders. However, a report on findings coming out of the meetings will be published at the end of the month.

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Rivas — who is currently in his first term in the state legislature — represents the state’s 30th Assembly District, which includes portions of Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties.

“In my short time in the legislature, there’s certainly been no shortage of crises in this state, and housing and homelessness are at the top of that list,” Rivas told Lookout this week. “To be quite honest, our housing crisis here in California is a crisis that is so large that there is no single solution.”

Rivas said he feels, like many of his colleagues, that there hasn’t been enough done over the last three years — let alone the last few decades — to address the state’s housing crisis.

“The major drive of our poverty rate is that too many Californians are spending more and more of their income on housing and on rent,” he said. “We have an interest in doing something, and certainly to do more.”

Growing up in Paicines in San Benito County, Rivas lived in farmworker housing for the first decade of his life, associating that time with “difficulties, but nowhere near as challenging as what the farmworking families deal with now,” noting COVID-19 and wildfires. He said farmworkers are classified as frontline workers and operate as the “backbone of a $50 billion industry,” yet are living in conditions comparable to developing nations.

“As elected officials, we always have a choice whether to do something or do nothing,” he said. “It’s very easy to do nothing — we can keep waiting for more and more people to fall into homelessness or debt or these affordability issues — but certainly that’s not right, and that’s why we’re doing this.”

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Matt Huerta, the housing program manager for Monterey Bay Economic Partnership, worked with Rivas’s office and other housing stakeholders to identify the unique issues related to housing and affordability in the region.

He noted many issues of overcrowding for the region’s population of farmworkers, who are often “underpaid but highly appreciated.” With agriculture and hospitality as the region’s two primary industries, Huerta hopes leaders will take note and provide adequate funding from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent $22 billion package to address homelessness and permanent housing.

“We want to make sure that we get our fair share of that investment in our region, knowing that our region has both a rural piece and a suburban/urban edge,” he said. “It’s very difficult at times to compete for state resources because of our under-resourced local governments. Issues around land use and entitlement, permitting — we want to highlight some of these housing issues that will impact our production if we really don’t get ahead of those areas.”

Huerta believes that next week’s visit will offer the chance to incorporate “some real-time, real-world solutions” into the 2022 legislative package.

In planning the visit, Huerta aimed to incorporate people who were directly struggling in the region, as well as some of the leading nonprofit affordable housing developers.

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“We’re really trying to coordinate these efforts as much as we can,” he said. “This is just one of many opportunities — we want to make sure we can identify sites that will line up with the state’s resources, and have local governments hear what it’s going to take to identify these types of projects.”

Rivas will share the findings of the visit at the MBEP State of the Region conference, scheduled for Oct. 29. For now, Rivas is pairing the regional roundtable discussions with the more recently passed housing legislation SB 9 and SB 10, and focusing on what else can be done.

“Housing issues, housing impacts and solutions for housing can’t occur until we know how housing policy and how these housing issues need to be addressed in every region,” he said. “There’s no silver bullet that’s going to address all the housing issues in the state.”