By MITCH LIES
SALEM — Oregon’s farmworker housing tax credit moved one step closer to being extended beyond this year when it passed out of a key committee this week.
The Senate Rural Communities and Economic Development Committee unanimously sent Senate Bill 323 with a do-pass recommendation to the joint Tax Credit Committee after hearing a steady stream of testimony in support of the bill.
SB323 extends the tax credit to 2020. The credit would have expired at the end of this year.
Farmers, farmworkers and their representatives said the credit is vital to attracting and keeping farmworkers in Oregon.
Molly McCargar of Pearmine Farms in Gervais said her farm utilized tax credits to build on-farm housing nearly 20 years ago. Since then, she said, the farm has attracted a workforce that returns annually.
“Providing housing for agricultural workers is essential for ensuring this reliable workforce is available,” she said.
John McCulley, representing the tree fruit industry, said particularly in his industry, where a workforce is needed for a short period of time, affordable housing is critical.
“This is a highly skilled workforce that works intensively for a very short period of time,” McCulley said. “It is a mobile workforce, it is a seasonal workforce, and the housing that is able to be provided by farmers is critical to meeting those housing needs affordably for those workers.”
Farmers and community organizations use the credit to leverage federal grant funds, as well as private investment, said Roberto Jimenez, executive director of Farmworker Housing Development Corp. in Woodburn. The tax credit also “makes USDA Rural Development grants far more competitive,” Jimenez said, and encourages banks to invest in projects.
Agricultural employers generally apply the credit to their state income tax liability, he said.
The tax credit is used for on-farm and community-based farmworker housing.
“Prior to the tax credit, there were maybe three community-based housing projects across the state,” said Peter Hainley, executive director of CASA of Oregon, a private non-profit corporation that specializes in developing farmworker housing. Today there are 39.
“It has just been since the introduction of the tax credit that we have been able to go out and leverage the funds to get what we need to get done,” he said.
Ramon Ramirez, president of the farmworker union PCUN, said that in addition to being an economic issue, lawmakers should view extending the tax credit as a social issue.
“This is not only an issue of investing soundly in the state of Oregon,” Ramirez said. “This is really a social-justice issue and correcting a long-term wrong that farmworkers have been afforded for many years.
“We send a strong message saying, ‘You folks pick the food that we eat every day and you make Oregon prosper, and you count.’ And one way of doing that is supporting the passage of this bill,” Ramirez said.