Thousands of farmworkers live in SLO County. But there isn’t enough housing for them

Jose Gonzalez, of Oaxaca, Mexico, picks strawberries for Mar Vista Berry in Guadalupe in 2017. San Luis Obispo County supervisors are looking for ways to create more housing for farmworkers.
Jose Gonzalez, of Oaxaca, Mexico, picks strawberries for Mar Vista Berry in Guadalupe in 2017. San Luis Obispo County supervisors are looking for ways to create more housing for farmworkers. Los Angeles Times/TNS

Faced with what San Luis Obispo County leaders say is a chronic undersupply of farmworker housing that contributes to labor shortages, officials are working to make it easier to create dwellings for communities of low-pay agricultural workers.

Farmers say housing is critical to the industry’s future. It’s needed both for seasonal workers like strawberry pickers in South County, often on H-2A temporary work visas, as well as permanent employees of the agriculture industry that live in the area year-round with their families.

“We want to make sure we get this right. I want to make sure we take advantage of this opportunity and position ourselves strategically for the next 20 years so that our (farm businesses) can remain viable,” said Claire Wineman, with the Grower Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. She participated in a group that shaped proposed changes.

There are currently about 110 farm support quarters in San Luis Obispo County; some are single-family dwellings and mobile homes and others are group quarters. In 2012, there were 10,669 farmworkers employed in the county, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture census.

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County supervisors on Tuesday had a broad discussion about housing initiatives and unanimously indicated support for potential farmworker housing rule changes brought by the county Planning and Building Department staff. The proposals were developed with input from industry representatives.

County staff intend to host workshops for the public in North and South counties in the summer and fall and come back to the Board of Supervisors for final approval in summer 2019.

Here are some of the proposed changes:

  • Reduce minimum lot size. Current rules require a minimum of one to 20 acres for a single farmworker housing unit and a minimum of 20 acres for group quarters. Reducing that requirement could increase flexibility for building more housing.
  • Expand land use categories where farmworker housing is allowed. Allow group housing in residential and commercial land use categories, in addition to where it’s already allowed in agriculture and rural lands categories.
  • Increase units allowed without a discretionary permit. Allow more than 12 farm support units or 36 beds in group quarters without a special permit.
  • Allow portable-style housing. Mobile homes are currently required to be on a cement pad. Finding ways to allow temporary housing without permanent impact would add flexibility when a landowner doesn’t want structures built on the property.
  • Expand farther from work. Allow group quarters more than five miles away from the associated agricultural land, while considering traffic implications.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development sees farmworkers as a “special needs” housing group because they tend to have high rates of poverty, disproportionately live in the poorest housing conditions and have high rates of overcrowding and low rates of home ownership.

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That gives local agencies the ability to do things like allow units with larger bedroom counts, according to a Planning and Building Department staff report.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930; @MonicaLVaughan

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Farmer Greg France reads a statement Thursday, April 7, 2016, about the fire that destroyed one house and damaged another in the Mads Place housing development he and his wife bought to house farmworkers in Nipomo.