Farmworker housing a must for ag, leaders say
By COOKSON BEECHER
Without farmland there can be no farmers. But without farmworkers, there can be no ag economy.
That was the message John Smith, former executive director of the Skagit County, Wash., Housing Authority, shared with the 65 people attending the recent Skagit Valley Farmworker Housing Forum. The group was made up of farmers, farmworkers, elected officials and others.
Before the meeting, Maria Siguenza, who works in sales and accounting at Mike & Jean's Berry Farm, said that because farmworkers are the "main players" in most farming operations, it's important that they have adequate housing.
"We really need their commitment to staying in agriculture," she said.
"If their housing needs aren't met, they have a low motivation to stay in agriculture," said Eric Sanchez, Siguenza's co-worker.
Their comments echoed one of the conclusions of the trust's recently released housing survey of farmworkers, "A Sustainable Bounty: Investing in Our Agricultural Future."
According to the survey, half of the almost 3,000 Washington farmworkers surveyed said they either plan to leave farmwork within the year or don't know how much longer they will work in farming. Yet 91 percent of those surveyed said that more and better housing would encourage them to stay in agriculture.
About 187,000 farmworkers are employed in Washington state each year.
Of those surveyed, 24.1 percent of migrant workers and 13.6 percent of local workers live in housing provided by the employer.
The trust has previously estimated that approximately 39,000 additional homes are needed -- 12,000 seasonal units for migrant workers and 27,000 for local workers.
Brien Thane, executive director of the Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust, a nonprofit organization formed in 2003, said that despite their value to agriculture and to the state's overall economy, many farmworkers live in substandard housing, pay too much rent and have to pack too many people into living quarters.
"This threatens the stability of the workforce and the health and education of the farmworker families," he said.
Thane told the group that he believes that farmworker-housing advocates can make significant progress. He also conceded that finding enough funding to do that is a major challenge.
As of 2008, the trust and its housing authority partners developed 1,002 community-based farmworker homes in 34 developments across the state. Funding sources include state and federal programs.
While agreeing with Thane on funding challenges, Skagit County grower Mike Youngquist told the group about another major obstacle: Finding locations for housing is difficult because of stereotypes about farmworkers.
"It seems unlikely that any site anywhere can be found that will not evoke strong NIMBY (not in my backyard) sentiment," he said. "That is why you as our leaders must recognize the real issues and not accept stereotypes from controlling the issue."
After the meeting, Skagit County Commissioner Sharon Dillon, the former mayor of Sedro-Woolley, which has two farmworker apartment complexes, said the city's police department gets the lowest number of calls -- almost zero -- from those complexes.
"That's important for people to know," she said. "We need to get rid of the stigma attached to farmworker housing."
According to the Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust's survey of farmworkers, the average household income earned last year by the farmworkers surveyed was $17,596 -- 88 percent of the 2006 federal poverty level of $20,000 for a family of four.
The survey also found that household income varied across regions, with farmworker households in north central Washington earning an average of just $12,791 last year, while those in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties earned $21,425 on the average.
* 6 percent of those surveyed were living outdoors, in a shed or in a car, with 15 percent of migrant workers living in these conditions.
* 36 percent cited problems with their current housing conditions, with problems ranging from electrical and water problems to rat infestations.
* 32 percent lived in overcrowded units, largely to afford the rent.
* 42 percent of the renters were "cost-burdened," paying more than the federal standard of 30 percent of their income for housing costs. In addition, 19 percent paid more than 50 percent of their income for housing and utilities.
* 11 percent lived in a home they own in Washington.
For more information about the Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust and its survey of farmworkers in agricultural regions across the state: www.farmworkerhousingtrust.org