By Kollin Kosmicki
San Benito County must address the severe farmworker housing shortage.
As a journalist in the early 2000s, I examined heartbreaking farmworker housing conditions in Hollister. Multiple families, sometimes dozens of residents, often packed into small homes and poverty-stricken conditions.
The situation already reached a crisis level then. Fast forward nearly 20 years—with a booming farmworker population—the circumstances have worsened and the pandemic has underscored dangers of crowded farmworker living conditions.
Although I will steadfastly support slower single-family housing growth locally if elected as supervisor—we lack infrastructure to support more new residents—we must boost affordable options for existing residents, including farmworkers.
A major challenge for local farmers is attracting enough labor with the farmworker housing shortage, while adding such units would not cause negative repercussions we see from new single-family, market-rate homes. It would merely provide more housing for an existing population.
The right approach is to explore public-private-nonprofit partnerships—while aggressively pursuing outside dollars—to improve the local farmworker housing base.
The good news is there are efforts in Monterey County from which to learn, and state Assemblymember Robert Rivas and State Sen. Anna Caballero have shown firm commitments to this issue.
The challenge: It requires serious commitments from all government levels, along with the private and nonprofit sectors.
Highly lauded projects in Greenfield and Salinas are particularly intriguing and evoke attractive campus environments. The “Harvest Moon” project on the outskirts of Salinas includes 10, two-story buildings with potential to house 1,200 residents, and a Greenfield project from the same developer involves seven buildings for 800 residents.
According to the Monterey Weekly, each bedroom can host four workers with two bathrooms and a kitchen. The complex will include hundreds of parking spots, laundry rooms and recreation areas.
A similar project here would chip away at our farmworker housing shortage. It would not fill the gap completely, though, so we need a diverse mix of additional farmworker housing.
While we know about a severe shortage through anecdotal evidence, we lack a precise census of migrant workers here. Therefore, it would make sense to study this population with a needs assessment.
We do know through a 2018 study that agricultural employment in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties hit a July peak of nearly 82,000 with an average monthly workforce of over 60,000. That study found a 24 percent increase in regional farm labor employment over the prior decade with labor costs skyrocketing 60 percent, inflation adjusted, over 40 years.
We also know about a farmworker housing shortage in surrounding counties, and waiting lists for existing farmworker housing in San Benito County are a given.
At the seasonal migrant center here, the county offers 67 homes for farmworker families for up to 260 people. Capacity is always 100 percent, and waiting lists vary. The farm labor association runs a labor camp with 272 beds, and some projects have cropped up—such as apartment units on Hollister’s west side—for farmworkers.
Some farmers have invested in farmworker housing while recognizing the immense need. But that’s not always economically feasible, and current options aren’t enough.
So how can leaders solve the problem?
It starts with a multijurisdictional plan and, of course, funding.
Local jurisdictions have capacity to obtain outside dollars from the state or federal government. Theoretically, the county, Hollister and San Juan could each apply for $3 million transitional housing grants through the California Department of Housing & Community Development—and jointly apply those funds toward a farmworker housing project—while this is just one example of funding to incentivize such projects for nonprofit or private partners.
This example also underscores the need for an incentive-based grant-writing consultant, which I have proposed for the county, to assist toward such efforts.
Of course, leaders must show political will to make it happen.
Kollin Kosmicki, the owner of San Benito Live, is running for San Benito County Board of Supervisors District 2.