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As Santa Maria works to address the growing need for H-2A farmworker housing, possible actions include zone changes, updates to the housing code and General Plan amendments that could make it easier to build housing developments within the city.

The housing of H-2A workers has been under a local spotlight since the City Council in April allowed an emergency ordinance banning the housing of more than six H-2A workers in single-family homes and medium-density dwellings to expire after numerous farmers complained about the impact it would have on their businesses.

In June, the city began a series of five community meetings to gather public input from growers, community members and other stakeholders with the goal of developing possible solutions to the problem.

After the last outreach meeting, officials will develop a plan to address the city’s farmworker needs, Community Development Manager Chuen Ng said, adding that opportunities for zoning changes, the use of temporary structures and updates to the housing code need to be explored.

Under the H-2A program — which is used by several large farming operations in the Santa Maria area — employers may apply to bring temporary workers from abroad to work their crops. The program requires that employers provide workers with housing at no cost, provide daily transportation to and from the work site and provide daily meals or facilities to allow workers to cook for themselves.

According to city officials, there were 1,700 H-2A workers that were in Santa Maria during the 2016-17 fiscal year, with around 900 of them housed in residential dwellings and the remaining housed in hotels or motels.

Temporary structures

One potential option is the possibility of using prefabricated, modular temporary homes, which could be transported and set up either onsite at the farms or elsewhere nearby, Ng said.

“I don’t know whether that qualifies as H-2A housing — that’s something that needs a little bit more research,” he added.

One major advantage of a modular solution like temporary homes would be the speed at which it could be implemented.

“With temporary housing, you’re not waiting for a development review process and construction of a permanent structure,” Ng said. “Also, when we talk about permanent developments, now you’re talking about connections for sewer and water. If it's something more temporary in nature, it may be just relying on a water well and perhaps the use of septic. But I don’t know how many people it would be able to accommodate.”

Ng said the concern with temporary housing is that farmworkers may be stationed in an area that leaves them isolated from stores and other services in the city.

Zoning changes

Thus far the only commercial structures that have been used to house farmworkers are motels and hotels, said Planning Manager Ryan Hostetter.

While city staff has hypothetically discussed repurposing commercial structures for farmworker housing, many issues exist in converting a building's use.

While city officials say it may be possible for commercial properties to house farmworkers, they have expressed skepticism about one idea that was suggested at the June and July H-2A community meetings: converting the former Costco building to H-2A housing.

“There’s a whole host of issues with that,” Hostetter said at the July H-2A meeting. “[The old Costco building] is not designed for habitation. It would have to be completely rebuilt from a health and safety perspective. It’s not designed for residential and wouldn’t meet our building requirements.”

Ng also pointed to the need for windows and natural light for residential buildings.

“We don’t want to put people in warehouses — it would need to look like a residential building,” Ng said, though he added, “I think people are thinking out-of-the-box and that’s necessary as we explore different solutions.”

General Plan update

The city’s General Plan update — which began earlier this year — will involve taking a fresh look at all of the city’s zoning districts and could provide possible ways to make the construction of H-2A housing developments easier, Ng said.

One possible action is raising the current 22 units per acre limit on the city’s R-3 high-density residential zone, Ng said.

“That is actually comparatively low to other cities in the state,” he added.

Allowing a more dense development would better accommodate growers who wish to develop H-2A housing but can’t find a profitable way to work within the city’s density requirements, city officials said.

“There may be a need for land use and zoning to kind of catch up with market demand and market forces,” Ng said. “I think from a land use perspective, we need to be a little bit more nimble and a little bit more responsive.”

“Context is important — it has to be location specific — but I think there are some options to increase density,” Ng said. “That, in turn, would provide opportunities for H-2A.”

While the General Plan update — which is expected to be a four-year effort — will likely not be completed quickly enough to address the immediate need for farmworker housing, it will help the city deal with the anticipated demand for H-2A workers in the future, Ng said.

“This is a complex and tough topic,” Ng said. “I hope that when we do begin to draft an ordinance that we’re able to address the concerns of our local residents while still meeting the needs of the agricultural community. But I think the more we talk about this, the closer we’ll get to that solution.”

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Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @razisyed

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