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Several Santa Maria residents expressed frustration with housing regulations for H-2A farmworkers on Thursday, during the third of five planned community meetings on the H-2A program.

Held at the Edwards Community Center, the meeting — which drew around 45 people — included officials from the California Employment Development Department and the California Department of Housing and Community Development. Both agencies help to administer and oversee the H-2A program in the state.

Under the H-2A program — which is used by several large farming operations in the Santa Maria area — employers may apply to bring foreign workers to the United States for temporary agricultural jobs. Employers using H-2A workers must provide housing at no cost to workers, provide daily transportation to and from the work site and provide each worker with daily meals or provide facilities for workers to prepare meals for themselves.

There were 1,700 H-2A workers in Santa Maria during the 2016-17 fiscal year — around 900 of them in residential dwellings with the remainder housed in hotels or motels.

The series of community meetings was designed to help city officials gather information and hear input from stakeholders as the city develops a permanent H-2A housing ordinance for the city.

City Councilman Dr. Michael Moats asked state officials if there was any precedent for a city ordinance to limit the number of H-2A workers in single-family dwellings.

“I’d like to address what I consider to be the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” Moats said. “Our city of Santa Maria enacted an emergency ordinance earlier this year limiting the number of H-2A workers in a single-family residence on a quiet residential street to six persons. The emergency ordinance lasted 30 days and was not renewed. Is there a precedent for limiting the number of H-2A workers that can live in a house?”

Cesar Ponce, a codes and standards administrator with the Department of Housing and Community Development, said he would have to return to what the H-2A law mandates for workers.

“There’s no number of employees that someone could be limited to,” Ponce told Moats. “I’m going to refer back to that 50-square-foot per person in a sleeping room — and that’s the limitation.”

Moats asked Ponce about the possibility of a large group of unrelated men living together alongside families.

“So I can fit 10 people in my five-bedroom house that has three bathrooms,” Moats said. “Now if I’m buying the house next to your house, and you’re in a quiet residential neighborhood, you know all your neighbors. Now all of a sudden you have 10 persons moving in — all single males. How would you feel about that? How would that affect your property values? How would you feel about your personal safety?”

“My answer to your question is going to stick to the law,” Ponce said. “The law states that it’s possible. And if it’s 50 square feet per person you’ve provided, that’s allowed.”

Santa Maria resident Jorge Delgado said H-2A workers need be housed outside of residential neighborhoods.

“I’m concerned with my property value,” Delgado said. “I don’t know who these people are. I have nothing against H-2A but just them coming into neighborhoods and living in the neighborhoods. And from what I hear, we can’t do anything about it — is that right?”

Innovative Produce owner and president George Adam said it was unrealistic to expect a lot of investment into many large H-2A housing projects while uncertainty remains over the city’s final H-2A ordinance.

“No one — no entity is going to invest millions and millions of dollars and not know if it’ll work,” Adam said. “It would help if there was more developed, but there needs to be a risk assessment.

Councilman Mike Cordero asked what sorts of enforcement actions can be taken against employers, those managing H-2A housing or the farmworkers should they not be abiding by the regulations.

“What happens to a person if they step out of bounds — either the employer, migrant worker or the facility owner or operator?” Cordero asked.

Ramon Diaz, of the California Employment Development Department, said homes and facilities used for H-2A housing are inspected and employers can be fined or even barred from using the H-2A program if they’re cited for violating rules.

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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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