Central Coast agriculture is in a labor crisis, and there is a serious debate about the long-term solution.
Some say it’s to invent technology to harvest delicate crops like strawberries that have been notoriously difficult to pick by machine. Others say it’s to lift the wages and working conditions of farmworkers to allow the industry to attract and retain talented employees.
But in the short-term, the solution has been the federal H-2A temporary visa program for agricultural workers. Under the H-2A program, workers are brought in for a few months, then return home afterwards. Agricultural companies are responsible for their housing, food, transportation and immigration papers during their stay.
Use of the H-2A program has exploded more than tenfold in the past few years, and continues to grow rapidly. The Santa Maria Valley and Salinas Valley have become the largest employers of H-2A workers in the state, with the perfect storm of highly labor-intensive crops like strawberries and lettuce, and rising coastal housing costs that are outstripping low wages in the fields.
But the key question is where will H-2A workers live? Employers are buying and renting motels, apartments and houses throughout the city to convert to seasonal employee housing.
Some people are hostile to the idea of farmworkers living next to them, a sentiment harbored by an arsonist who burned down farmworker housing under construction in Nipomo in 2016. Some propose to carve out an exemption that would keep H-2A housing out of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods. This would further segregate our community and reward prejudice with special treatment. It would also likely violate fair-housing laws and could tie the city up in a legal challenge.
A better way to address the impacts of H-2A housing on our neighborhoods would be to address the potential displacement of Santa Maria residents and removal affordable rental units. Because of the demand for H-2A housing, some landlords have more incentive to rent a house to a dozen seasonal workers than renting to one local family. But if a landlord converts a building to H-2A workforce housing, a local family may suddenly lose their home and struggle to find a new place to live in today’s housing market.
That’s why both the city and Santa Barbara County require landlords to provide financial assistance to any displaced tenants if they renovate their building or convert to condominiums. A simple requirement to provide three months’ rent to any tenant displaced by H-2A housing would have strong legal precedent and prevent unintended negative consequences for our community.
This encourages agricultural employers to build new farmworker housing rather than using existing housing stock, which is more sustainable for the industry in the long run. Displacing local farmworker families will only feed the root causes of the local labor shortage and result in farms needing even more H-2A workers, creating an endless cycle.
Ultimately, for agriculture to be economically viable in the future of the Santa Maria Valley, we will need to designate areas for the construction of new farmworker housing in town. As the city updates its General Plan, we should consider options of land that could be repurposed for farmworker apartments, like rezoning the underutilized industrial areas along Depot Street.
For now, we need to craft a balance of policies that allow H-2A housing to be built, while protecting existing residents from displacement. Allowing inspected and permitted farmworker housing, but requiring displacement assistance if it removes an existing rental unit is a reasonable path forward that can protect our neighborhoods while allowing our agricultural economy to thrive.