Santa Maria officials addressed the challenges and opportunities for farmworker housing projects Thursday during the second of five monthly community meetings on the H-2A temporary farmworker program.
Held at the Elwin Mussell Senior Center and attended by around 50 people, the meeting included talk about what secondary uses exist for potential H-2A housing projects, the challenge of building in the unincorporated parts of the county and the city’s zoning requirements for residential areas.
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 that allow workers to cook for themselves.
On Thursday, Assistant City Attorney Philip Sinco, land use consultant Laurie Tamura and city planning manager Ryan Hostetter gave an overview of the program and fielded questions from audience members. City Councilmembers Etta Waterfield, Michael Moats and Michael Cordero attended the meeting along with Planning Commissioners Robert Dickerson, Tim Seifert and Kelly White O’Neill.
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, Sinco said.
Thursday night’s event follows up on the first H-2A community meeting, which took place last month with city and county officials.
Tamura said building large farmworker developments near the agricultural areas in Santa Maria Valley is difficult due to the need to extend water and sewer lines for basic utilities beyond the urban core of the city.
“To expand urban services is a big political decision and in the foreseeable future probably would not be approved,” Tamura said.
Hostetter said as the city updates its general plan, the city is considering raising the current 22 units per acre limit for high-density residential areas which would make H-2A housing projects within city borders more feasible.
White O’Neill asked if the city could create a higher housing standard than the federal requirements for any H-2A housing projects to ensure that the facilities could have other uses — like senior housing — if the need for temporary foreign farmworkers were to decrease. Under the program, 50 square feet of bedroom space is required for each worker and a bathroom with at least one showerhead for every 10 employees.
“We would never put seniors in something like that,” O’Neill said. “Could the city make our H-2A standard a higher standard so that the building could be more multi-use and have a lifespan beyond this program?”
Hostetter said generally federal law supersedes local law and that she’d have to check to see whether the law allows for the city to have a stricter standard.
O’Neill asked what the incentive was for growers, given the laborious and expensive process of applying for H-2A workers with the federal government and then covering housing and transportation costs.
“What’s the incentive of doing that and now having a building that you have to manage versus raising wages and just making the farmworker job more appealing to probably more people?” O’Neill asked. “Or is that just a pipe dream?”
President and owner of Innovative Produce George Adam, who was in the audience, said H-2A workers provide growers with reliability.
“We can’t run a business with people that are leaving us constantly,” Adam said. “I got an example: I had 10 domestic workers working with me in strawberries and they all left cause they got paid more when other work became available. So basically everyone is jumping all over the place to make the most money — we can’t run a business that way.”
The domestic workforce for farm labor is an aging and dwindling population, Adam said. “The future of ag in Santa Maria is going to be with H-2A, as I see it.”