The tragic death of seven farmworkers at California Terra Garden and Concord Farms on January 23 in Half Moon Bay has shined a spotlight on the deplorable living conditions endured by many farmworkers — over many decades — on the San Mateo County coast.
County officials have said that they had no way of knowing that farmworkers were living at Terra Garden, since the company had never obtained the necessary county farmworker housing permits. Terra Garden has said it will build new housing for its workers, but this will take time. Concord Farms had been notified in 2015 by the county that they needed to legalize one unpermitted unit, but apparently no further corrective action was taken.
Risks Keep Farmworkers Silent
This tragedy has raised many questions about the general state of farmworker housing throughout San Mateo County. This is a particularly challenging issue, as farmworkers’ need for safe, decent living conditions are easily overlooked — until a tragedy like the Half Moon Bay shooting brings them to light.
In 1994, the Half Moon Bay Review published a special report on the plight of the county’s farmworkers: “Beyond the Barracks.” The report noted that an estimated 2,000 workers were living in overcrowded and bare-bones mobile homes – most of which were located on the farms where they worked. Seasonal workers, usually single men hired by large producers, were housed in barracks that were cold, wet, overcrowded, and unsanitary. Workers silently endured these deplorable conditions, as anyone who dared to complain risked losing their jobs, and workers who were undocumented also faced deportation. These articles generated a lot of interest in improving conditions for farmworkers, and county elected officials and nonprofits worked diligently to find suitable sites for housing.
Moonridge Community and Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo Farms are Examples to Follow
Have farmworker living conditions changed much since then? Farmworkers are still fearful and reluctant to report unsafe and unsanitary conditions, especially at farms where they also work. But there have been some significant steps forward — notably construction of Moonridge, an award-winning, 160-unit affordable housing community for farmworkers near Half Moon Bay, which opened its doors in 1999. This attractive project features duplex and fourplex buildings built around playgrounds, tot lots, and community gardens. To be eligible to move in, at least one member of the family must be employed as a year-round farmworker. A significant benefit allows the family to continue to live there, even if the farmworker loses his/her job or retires. This avoids a potential double disaster for workers who could lose both their job and housing at the same time. As a result, turnover at Moonridge is very low. The need for more projects like Moonridge is as great as ever.
San Mateo County and Half Moon Bay leaders have recently been pursuing other potential sites where more Moonridge-style farmworker community housing could be located. Ideally this would be in the Half Moon Bay area close to jobs and other services. The Half Moon Bay City Council is also moving forward on a plan to build 40 units of farmworker housing on a city-owned site near the downtown area.
In the rural south coast area surrounding Pescadero, finding suitable sites for a significant amount of housing is more challenging due to lack of potable water and septic capability. A few new units have been built on individual farms, but nowhere near what is needed. A shining model for farmworker housing is Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo Farms, near Pescadero, where several families live in attractive solar heated units, and share common facilities with owners Larry Jacobs and Sandra Belin, who have a lifelong commitment to organic and sustainable practices.
Green Foothills Efforts in Support of Safe, Decent Farmworker Housing
Last week, Green Foothills was pleased to hear that the 71-unit Cypress Point affordable housing project in Moss Beach will include 18 units for farmworkers with funding provided by the state. We supported this project as well as the Moonridge project. In the case of the latter, we made sure that it was provided for in Measure A, the Coastside Protection Initiative, which voters approved in 1986. We have also monitored all proposals for farmworker housing as they have come before the County Planning Commission. Over the years we have urged County Supervisors who represent the Coastside to pursue appropriate sites for farmworker housing other than on individual farms, because when farmworkers’ housing is tied to their jobs they are vulnerable to losing both at once and are less likely to report abuses.
For more than five decades, we have advocated for safe, decent, affordable farmworker housing, and we’ll continue to do so. If any good can come from the deaths of Jose Romero Perez, Marciano Martinez Jimenez, Qi Zhong Cheng, Ye Tao Bing, Jing Zhi Lu, Zhi Shen Liu, and Ai Xiang Zhang on January 23, redressing these long-standing housing injustices would be an important first step.
If you would like to help support farmworkers in San Mateo County, please visit the website of ALAS, an organization that assists the workers and their families: https://www.alasdreams.com/programs-farmworkers
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