In the News

Our View: Housing dilemma, must talk

Originally posted on Santa Maria Times

When someone in the rural Midwest decides to relocate to California for career opportunities, the first reality when arriving in Santa Barbara County is housing sticker shock.

Big-city refugees may be accustomed to paying $2,500 a month for a studio apartment, but for most everyone else, local rents can make a person feel faint.

So, imagine the kind of shock field workers encounter when they come in droves to harvest crops.

To help mitigate sticker shock, Peoples’ Self-Help Housing held a ribbon-cutting last Friday for Los Adobes de Maria III, a three-story, 34-unit development of affordable housing built specifically for farm workers, which should help address at least one segment of Santa Barbara County's housing crisis.

Like most low-income housing projects in this region, Los Adobes de Maria III was several years in planning and development. It is the third farmworker housing development built by the nonprofit organization in an area near the nexus of Boone Street and Blosser Road.

Here’s the extent of the housing crisis: Peoples’ Self-Help Housing has a waiting list of nearly 300 people, and that’s not counting the hundreds who are on other waiting lists.

The farmworker housing project comes as Santa Maria is addressing the need for H-2A farmworker housing, which came up on the Santa Maria City Council’s radar last spring, and includes potential zoning changes, an updating of the housing code, and changes to the city’s General Plan that could pave the way for affordable housing projects in the city.

What got the ball rolling on this issue was the council allowing the expiration of a ban on the number of of farm workers in single-family homes, set at a maximum of six. That move was provoked by local growers’ complaints about such a ban reducing the potential labor pool, thus costing them money.

Under the H-2A program, employers can apply to bring temporary workers from other countries to work their crops, and the program requires employers provide workers with no-cost housing, daily transportation to and from the work site, and meals or facilities to let workers cook for themselves.

There is an average of about 1,700 H-2A workers in the Santa Maria area during the year, with around 900 housed in residential dwellings throughout the community, and the rest in hotels or motels.

The City Council has some options for easing the housing strain, but not many. City officials are considering repurposing commercial structures, but that introduces all kinds of new problems.

Some of the answers may come with completion of the city’s General Plan update, already in progress, that is taking a fresh look at all of the city’s zoning districts with the idea that a few tweaks could facilitate ways to make construction of H-2A housing developments far simpler.

The problem with relying on the General Plan update is that its completion is not expected for at least another two to three years, which doesn’t do much to resolve what is already a problem.

As one city official put it, “This is a complex and tough topic,” exacerbated by the NIMBY factor, which translates to “not in my back yard.” That particular bump in the road occurs just about every time an affordable-housing project is proposed, just about anywhere in the county.

The NIMBY factor can be mitigated by the type of community discussions the farmworker housing pinch has helped get under way. The more we talk about the problem in humanitarian terms, the easier it is to find solutions.