(Mike Morales)
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The journey to make farmworker housing happen: MBEP works to affect lasting change in the region

To address the critical shortage of farmworker housing in the Salinas and Pajaro valleys, it is estimated that the region will need more than 33,000 units of farmworker housing to alleviate critical overcrowding. Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP) puts data and technical policy knowledge into action to make housing progress.

When the City of Salinas agreed to coordinate a needs assessment of farmworker housing, Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP) was among the many partnering organizations supporting the year-long regional survey. Conducted by the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS) and the California Coalition for Rural Housing (CCRH), the resulting Farmworker Housing Study and Action Plan for Salinas Valley and Pajaro Valley was published in April 2018 and produced an abundance of data that quantified the depth and details of the region’s farmworker housing shortage, outlined solutions that were proving effective in other agricultural regions, and set clear goals for addressing the shortage.

But the data — all 502 pages of it — is just the first step of the journey.

And it’s no small journey: According to the report, it’s going to take an additional 33,159 units of farmworker housing over the long-term to alleviate critical overcrowding in farmworker households. MBEP is turning that data into action.

As a regional organization, MBEP is taking a lead role in the implementation of the study’s Action Plan. That’s because MBEP is uniquely able to convene stakeholders from across the tri-county region, says MBEP Housing Associate Rafael Hernandez, without limits on jurisdiction or sector.

A wide range of entities, including cities and counties, nonprofits, ag industry stakeholders and nonprofit housing developers, are invested in finding meaningful solutions to the region’s housing problems, for lots of reasons. The fact that the vast majority of farmworkers in the region live in severely overcrowded conditions, sometimes in sheds, garages or other facilities without kitchens, or share a bathroom for five or more people, matters beyond the obvious humanitarian crisis. It’s a public health issue, a code enforcement nightmare, and for employers increasingly vexed by an unstable workforce, an economic crisis that impacts the entire region.

Too few housing units means higher rents and home prices for everyone, not just farmworkers, says Hernandez.


Housing instability has for years been an increasing concern among the region’s ag industry, which has struggled to maintain a stable workforce. And how the agricultural industry fares matters greatly to the region: In Monterey County alone, agriculture is a $4.41 billion industry, according to the county’s 2019 crop report, surpassing any other industry, including tourism, in terms of economic impact.

Data is incredibly central to what MBEP does: It’s the starting point and driver which can bring issues more clearly into focus, and through regional events such as MBEP’s annual State of the Region and its annual Regional Economic Summit, or through Housing 101 events, housing-related election forums, housing resource fairs, and even Housing Happy Hours, MBEP gets data off the shelf and out into the communities where those challenges exist.

In 2018, MBEP’s Housing Policy White Paper outlined nine politically realistic policy changes that were likely to have a positive effect on the region’s housing affordability; The result has been 14 new policies, and counting, that are improving housing affordability across the region. In its COVID-19 Housing Response Position Paper, MBEP identified policy initiatives to protect the region’s most vulnerable populations, and a Housing and Water Blue Paper commissioned by MBEP identified and recommended key water policies and activities to strengthen the ability of the Monterey Peninsula local governments to achieve their housing production goals.

Since its inception, MBEP’s Housing Initiative has worked to bring housing-related issues into focus, to build, educate, and empower a broad coalition of community members, local employers and organizations necessary to bring about change, from policy to public opinion, that will bring new housing units of all types to the region.

That strategic approach has helped build consensus and measurable action on some of the biggest challenges facing the Monterey Bay region, and MBEP’s involvement in the farmworker housing plan is a great example of how MBEP employs its regional, data-driven approach to effectively address issues, from housing and broadband to workforce development and climate change.

Just how out of reach has housing gotten for the region’s farmworkers? The median wage for those farmworkers is $12.79 per hour, and the seasonal nature of their work can mean going months without a paycheck. To manage rent in a region with such an imbalance of housing supply and demand, farmworkers often rent homes, apartments, even sheds with non-family members, and the report cites “consistently stunningly high rates of residences that are above the severely crowded condition of 2.0 people per room.” Nearly one in five live in rented rooms without kitchens, and another 12% live in “other” types of dwellings, like motels, boarding houses or barracks, according to the report.

Farmworker housing isn’t just a problem for farmworkers, says Hernandez: Hospitality employees on the Monterey Peninsula can’t afford to live where they work, which drives up fuel costs, and vehicle miles traveled, impacts traffic congestion and road wear. Ultimately it impacts everything from the cost of produce at the supermarket to the rising costs of rent and home prices.

Ag is the biggest industry we have in our region, and any issues there, whether it’s e. coli or the fires or housing, the cost is something we’ll see at the grocery store

— Rafael Hernandez, MBEP Housing Associate

“If the agricultural industry is struggling with housing issues, they’re going to have a hard time getting (and keeping) workers, and that trickles down to all of us.”

Assumptions and baggage abound when it comes to affordable housing, says Hernandez, from NIMBYism and prejudices to fears about more cars, more traffic, more crime, more noise. Presenting clear, reliable data and increasing public awareness can break through the emotional noise.

That’s why MBEP’s advocacy work is so important to the region: In the past five years, MBEP has endorsed 25 projects, including a recently approved 53-unit affordable housing development for farmworkers and others in Watsonville by Eden Housing. Another proposed project, Greenfield Commons by EAH Housing, would provide 222 units of farmworker and other affordable housing to Greenfield. The subject of an MBEP Action Center campaign to build support, is scheduled to go before the Greenfield City Council for approval on April 27.

When Eden Housing, MidPen Housing and other nonprofit housing developers seek out MBEP’s endorsement, their project is put through a rigorous evaluation process. If approved, MBEP submits a letter to the appropriate council or public agency in support of the project, and mobilizes support through its Action Center with letters and public testimony at city council or planning commission meetings. Those voices, and MBEP’s input, matter. “We’re recognized for being technical and data-driven,” says Hernandez. “We cite data, studies, and the technical and economic context, and we endorse policies and projects that bring about the right kinds of housing.”

When Northern California-based EAH Housing, prompted by the region’s farmworker housing study, sought out property in South Monterey County and housing study, MBEP was able to play a key role in connecting them to the region’s stakeholders.

So how do you make the Action Plan’s goal of producing 3,500 permanent, affordable farmworker housing units to stabilize the workforce happen in a five-year timespan? To get there, MBEP convened subcommittees to delve into the four main areas: Housing Types, Suitable Sites, Financing, and Regulatory Reform, broken down into 57 smaller goals, including:

  • Working with jurisdictions to identifying potential sites for farmworker housing,
  • Facilitating the development of accessory dwelling units by considering a reduction of impact and permit fees, and establishing lender products for ADU construction,
  • Taking an education-based approach to code councils and building officials so as to streamline adoption of new building technologies like modular construction,
  • Supporting the implementation of appropriate transit strategies such as expanded vanpools, mobility hub development, public/private partnerships with transportation network companies, expanded express transit service, and workforce housing projects;
  • Facilitating the creation of alternative funding mechanisms by convening agricultural interests interest in sharing resources to build and operate farmworker housing;
  • Identifying and eliminating barriers for development of employer-sponsored housing while ensuring that the development is built to allow for future conversion to multi-family should the employer sell the property;
  • Incentivize smaller, less expensive units by charging developer impact fees based on unit square footage rather than per unit and reducing minimum net land area per unit requirements.

Each of those pieces — from carefully chosen endorsements, the specific steps to push the Farmworker Action Plan forward, public awareness and connecting stakeholders — play a part in completing the region’s housing puzzle.

MBEP also advocates at the state and local level for policies that will encourage more employer-sponsored housing to be built, and works behind the scenes with ag employers to advocate for employers to invest in housing solutions for their employees. Bringing more agricultural employer-sponsored housing projects to the region is another part of the solution, and MBEP has supported various ag employer-sponsored housing projects and collaborated with developers, city and county staff, and the Growers Shippers Association to encourage ag employers to seek housing solutions.

Spreckels Crossing housing units
In 2016, Spreckels Crossing was established by Tanimura & Antle to provide 100 units of affordable housing for farmworkers during the Salinas harvest season

As part of the work of the Suitable Sites subcommittee, MBEP and the City of Salinas worked with Monterey County staff to create an online mapping tool to map suitable sites in unincorporated areas outside Salinas city limits but close enough to connect to city infrastructure. The creation of that GIS Opportunity Map tool helped identify the site for “Harvest Moon,” a farmworker housing project that will provide up to 1,200 beds for seasonal agricultural employees. That development is currently under construction.

It’s a complicated quilt of activity, and MBEP is uniquely positioned to foster the discussions, the collaborations and ultimately, the momentum to address the region’s housing shortfall.

“MBEP brings the right combination to the table, from the technical policy knowledge, to being a convener, to having the ability to speak the language of housing through the vantage point of stakeholders across the region,” says Hernandez. “When it comes to housing issues, we are well-positioned to get in the weeds and get things done.”

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