Affordable Housing Options for Farmers in Ventura County
HFW! advocates for farmworker housing such as Camino Gonzalez apartments, developed by the Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation.
Credit:Image courtesy of Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation. Farming has been an integral part of the economy and culture of Ventura County, California, since the late 18th century, when farmers from Spain and Mexico began to settle in the area. A $1.8 billion industry in 2011, agriculture is a significant driver of Ventura County’s economy. As expensive residential and commercial development spreads through the county’s suburbs, farmers struggle to retain both farmland and a stable labor force that can afford to live in the county, while suburban residents express concern about the effect affordable housing for farm workers will have on their neighborhoods. Between these contending forces is House Farm Workers! (HFW!), a local volunteer group helping to increase the supply of – and public support for – affordable farm workers’ housing in the county.
Ventura County: Rich in Soil, Rich in Workforce
Ventura County farms employ approximately 23,000 men and women each year. Approximately one-third of these employees are migrant workers who require short-term lodging; however, because of the perennial nature of farm production in Ventura County, the remaining two-thirds require permanent housing. In 2012, these farm workers earned an average of $18,300 annually in a county where the average annual rent was $18,000. Because decent, affordable housing is so expensive in the area, farm workers often share overcrowded housing or stay in places not equipped for human habitation, such as sheds and garages. Living in unsanitary and unsafe housing creates numerous public health and social issues, such as higher rates of disease and poor educational outcomes for children.
House Farm Workers! Encouraging Development, Educating the Public
HFW! is a project sponsored by the Ventura County Ag Futures Alliance, a nonprofit organization that supports environmentally, economically, and politically acceptable farming by engaging diverse stakeholders in education, dialogue, and advocacy. The alliance’s activities range from spearheading committees that target the specific needs of the agricultural community to developing recommendations on local government policies. Founded in 2004, HFW! is concerned with attracting and maintaining a healthy and well-paid agricultural workforce, which requires that workers have affordable housing options available to them.
HFW! addresses this need through public policy advocacy, local education campaigns, and consultation with local affordable housing developers. HFW! volunteers pay personal visits to public officials and community leaders to discuss the need for affordable housing for farm workers. Daniela Ramirez, coordinator of HFW!, points out that neighborhood residents often express concern when they hear about plans to develop farm worker housing nearby. To allay such worries, HFW! describes the need for quality, uncrowded, affordable housing and dispels preconceived notions of how farm workers might affect the neighborhood. HFW! has also developed two educational films to help personalize the need for housing options for farm workers and their families. These films are shown in communities around Ventura County and have prompted viewers to become HFW! volunteers.
The organization also teaches local farm workers to self-advocate for affordable housing, maintains a social network of interested county residents, and sponsors local talks on topics related to farm worker housing. HFW! believes that having committed advocates is essential to bringing these affordable housing projects to fruition. Ramirez states, “We would not have the affordable housing that we have without these efforts.”
In addition, HFW! supports affordable housing developers by identifying possible sites, talking with funders, and speaking at public hearings. Among the developers HFW! has assisted are the Corporation for Better Housing, Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation, Mercy Housing, and Limoneira. These companies have developed or are developing 539 rental and for-sale housing units for permanent farm workers, plus temporary housing for migrant workers. Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation developments completed in 2012 include 114 rental units for farm workers in three properties — Azahar Place, Valle Naranjal, and Camino Gonzalez. Each of the properties offers affordable townhome or flat-style rentals with energy-efficient features, and two of the properties include community rooms that offer resident services and classes.
HFW! and its partners — volunteers, farmers, farm workers, and developers — have done much to address and improve community support for farm worker housing in Ventura County. They recognize the importance of education and advocacy on the one hand and the development of affordable housing on the other. Both efforts are needed to maintain a viable workforce for one of Ventura County’s most important industries.