Federal housing officials have ordered the Santa Maria City Council to repeal an H-2A housing ordinance that may be considered discriminatory or face a potential $400,000 fine, a city spokesman confirmed Wednesday.
Council members failed to repeal the regulations Tuesday despite possible enforcement from the federal government but will revisit the issue on June 15.
The 2019 ordinance requires agricultural employers to obtain discretionary permits to house H-2A workers, or temporary guest workers, in single-family areas of the city. The ordinance was passed after 15 months of public debate and discussion about the rising number of workers living in residential areas.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development notified city officials on May 20 that the ordinance was found to specifically regulate H-2A employers, which in turn singles out people from a foreign country who are a federally protected class, according to city spokesman Mark van de Kamp.
In order to avoid a $400,000 fine, the ordinance must be repealed and all council members must participate in a sensitivity training, van de Kamp said.
"We are preparing to bring back the item to City Council in open session at its June 15 meeting — including the HUD correspondence and other details," van de Kamp said.
Repeal of the ordinance failed to pass Tuesday under a split 2-2 vote, with Councilmembers Etta Waterfield and Mike Cordero voting in favor of the repeal and Mayor Alice Patino and Councilman Carlos Escobedo dissenting. Councilwoman Gloria Soto was absent from the meeting.
Despite the differing votes about whether to comply with the repeal order, all four council members in attendance expressed frustration with the federal government's determination, arguing that the ordinance was a benefit to community members in residential areas.
"For the federal government to say we’re being discriminatory really bothers me. They’re overreaching their arm, telling us how we can and can’t house people, and what we can and can't do. I just think it’s wrong," Patino said before rejecting the repeal.
While city staff said their repeal recommendation was also based on a lack of permit applications for H-2A housing since the ordinance's passing, council members insisted that the "threat" of enforcement from the federal government was the catalyst for the discussion.
"We never would have brought it back, if it had not been brought to our attention by the higher authorities saying that we had to do it," Councilwoman Etta Waterfield said. "Our hands are literally tied."
City Attorney Thomas Watson admitted that officials expected there would be greater use of the conditional use permits under the ordinance, and noted that this is not the first time legal concerns on the matter have come up.
"There was always a concern that there may have been some challenges to this. While there has never been litigation challenged, there certainly have been questions regarding its continued use," Watson said.
Prior to the order from HUD, the city also received notice in 2019 from an attorney for the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties urging the ordinance to be changed to comply with the federal Fair Housing Act.
"By definition, all participants in the H-2A program are a protected class by virtue of their national origin. Thus, any additional restrictions on employee housing that are not imposed on similar uses occupied by non-protected classes … are subject to change," attorney Peter Howell said in a letter submitted on June 4, the day the ordinance was passed.
Association President Claire Wineman declined to comment directly on the 2019 letter but expressed gratitude for the city's continued work on the ordinance and noted the importance of supporting the H-2A program locally.
"There's still a really important role for a workforce to help harvest crops, and the H-2A program will continue to be an important part of that. Right now, offering housing is a part of that program, so it’s important that we have a variety of options and solutions available to address those needs," Wineman said.
An estimated 2,000 H-2A workers reside in Santa Maria up to 10 months out of the year, with an ever-growing need for locations to house such workers. Many of the workers also are housed in hotels, motels and apartment complexes.