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My View from Kim Herman
A unique, "inside" perspective on housing and community development from the executive director of the Washington State Housing Finance Commission
Focus on Farmworker Housing
George Lapsley, ranch foreman, year-round employee of the Knudson Ranch. The Knudson Ranch is owned and operated by Larry and Martha Knudson, Yakima, Washington.
This edition of My View focuses on current efforts to improve farmworker housing in Washington. I chose this focus for two reasons: First, warm weather brings the harvest season when the flow of migrant and seasonal farmworkers to our state is the greatest; second, since 1999, there has been a paradigm shift in our efforts to provide both seasonal and permanent housing for farmworkers and we need to recognize both our leadership and our successes, knowing that we still have a long way to go.
A March 2005 publication by the Housing Division at CTED entitled Farmworker Housing in Washington State: Safe, Decent and Affordable provides a brief yet comprehensive overview of the importance of migrant and seasonal labor to our agricultural economy and outlines the significant progress we have made since 1999. Janet Abbott, the Farmworker Housing Program Manager at CTED, deserves credit for completing the report and she can provide copies for reading if you are interested.
Janet also reports that the Pangborn Camp in East Wenatchee opens June 15th this year and has been upgraded to house 350 farmworkers, 140 more than last year. She says the Monitor Park Camp also opens in June. The highly successful Infrastructure Loan Program that helps growers put water, sewer and electrical systems on their farms to house seasonal farmworkers in Rent-a-Tents, will be restarted in mid-summer after a new staff person is hired and a new contractor to operate the program is selected. Each of these programs is outlined in more detail in the CTED publication.
Washington is now a national leader in efforts to improve farmworker housing. This is exciting and reflects the hard work and commitment of hundreds of individuals over the last 25 years and the growing recognition on the part of the Legislature, the Governor’s office and the agricultural community that providing decent, affordable housing for farmworkers is absolutely essential to our agricultural economy.
The four articles below chronicle successful efforts to increase the supply of decent, affordable housing and living situations for the farmworkers that harvest our crops. Combined with the CTED publication, I hope it gives you some sense of why I am excited to focus on this subject.
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Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing: 26 Years, nearly 1,000 homes—and more on the horizon
The Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing (ORFH), the Yakima-based nonprofit, has been developing affordable, good-quality rental housing for farmworkers and other low-income rural Washington residents since 1979. Last year, ORFH celebrated its 25th anniversary. More importantly, with the completion of homes in Grandview that are being built in concert with the Diocese of Yakima and other partners, ORFH will top the 1,000 unit mark—as a developer for affordable housing for low-income farmworkers. That translates into homes for approximately 5,000 people in rural Washington.
Director, Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing
Marty Miller, ORFH’s director, is realistic about the progress already made. “We’re very proud of this accomplishment. Yet when you look at the overall farmworker housing demands in the state, we’ve got a long way to go. We’re very fortunate to have had this kind of long-standing success, and there have been many committed board and staff members along the way.”
Ironically, ORFH got its start because 26 years ago, some of the available federal resources for farmworker housing were undersubscribed. ORFH was established to target those funds to build farmworker housing in Washington. “Unfortunately,” Marty laughs, “undersubscription is no longer a problem.”
A focus on getting homes built
Throughout its 26 years, ORFH’s vision has remained fixed on increasing the supply of affordable rental housing for farmworkers and other rural residents. “We’re very production driven—we don’t directly own or manage homes,” Marty explains. “That was a decision made by the founders and some of the early board members. Their view was that local ownership and oversight were the best methods of control—and being responsive to each community. That’s why we always work in partnership with other groups who act as the owner or manager.”
17 permanent homes for year-around farmworkers located at Heritage Glen in East Wenatchee, Washington
One fine example is ORFH’s work with Chelan County/Wenatchee Housing Authority on Heritage Glen in East Wenatchee, pictured below. Although the majority of rental homes ORFH develops are designed for year-round occupancy, they’ve incorporated more seasonal units in recent years.
Completed in 2002, Heritage Glen was the first in the state that combined both on the same site: 18 seasonal and 17 permanent homes for farmworkers. Marty acknowledges that both needs are critical and distinct: “They carry with them a whole different set of financial and operating needs, because they operate very differently. Really, it’s going to require a greater degree of collaboration to solve these needs.”
Collaboration is critical to addressing the spectrum of housing needs
Talking with Marty underscores the positive momentum that’s being gained by increased collaboration. ORFH exemplifies the partnerships that are going to make a significant difference in growing the housing opportunities for Washington’s farmworkers. This organization works all over the state—including Western Washington—with numerous sponsoring partners to get homes built. Partners include communities and community organizations, nonprofits like the Diocese of Yakima and other church groups, individual growers and grower groups. In fact, ORFH and the Washington Grower’s League recently entered into a memorandum of understanding: “We’ve been working together to develop a model where growers can financially participate in an affordable housing development that would serve agricultural employees. We’ve made a lot of progress on this and have been actively talking with growers and Ag industry folks.”
After a full day, there's still enough energy for a pick-up game in front of the 18 seasonal units of Heritage Glen in East Wenatchee, Washington. ORFH, the developer, emphasizes the importance of on-site play areas for tenants of all ages.
Marty is also pleased about seeing the growing interest from the private side in participating in farmworker housing solutions. ORFH has been supporting the new Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust’s larger-scale efforts to bring philanthropic funding into the state as a resource for farmworker housing to help leverage public investment.
On other fronts, ORFH co-sponsors a tri-state biannual conference, with Oregon-based CASA and the Idaho Migrant Council, to educate sponsors on farmworker housing ownership and management. The 5th Farm Worker Housing Asset and Property Management Conference will be held June 16 and 17 in Kennewick. “We know that operations and management are the absolute key to long-term success and we’re very committed to supporting our sponsors in this,” he emphasizes.Marty has led ORFH since early last year, but has been with the organization as a developer since 1993. It’s been a pleasure to see ORFH grow and flourish over the past quarter-century.
He says a strong focus for ORFH right now is “how to better articulate the benefits of affordable housing to local communities. I think there’s not always the level of understanding that we—who are in it every day—have. We like to joke around the office that ‘everybody loves us until we pick a site.’ We’d like to communicate to communities the benefits of affordable housing that are beyond the housing itself—job creation, financial stability of the families who live there, improved performance at school—in a better way. There are so many positive outcomes as a result of decent housing.”
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Mario Villanueva and the Diocese of Yakima Housing Services: Building homes, cultivating self-advocacy for farmworkers and educating communities
At the Commission we talk a lot about the importance of partnerships. In addressing the urgent need for decent, affordable farmworker housing, not only do we need to pool our resources—we need to cultivate new ones. I don’t think anyone exemplifies this better than Mario Villanueva in his work as director of the Diocese of Yakima Housing Services.
Director, Housing Services, Diocese of Yakima
Mario is the son of a migrant farmworker family originally from Texas and Mexico who eventually settled in Sunnyside. He was literally born in farmworker housing. And he’s aware of the needs that farmworkers have, not only for adequate housing, but also for the opportunity to develop a voice—to advocate for their needs. In his work with the Diocese of Yakima Housing Services, he has built an organization that works to house the rural poor, and educates communities and the people who live in them. Mario puts it this way: “We’re wedded to a quality product, but our attention is not just to construction and building boxes but paying attention to who lives in the boxes—and what else can be done to support and encourage self-improvement and growth.”
I’ve known Mario for about 25 years—we first crossed paths in the late 1970s when I was with the Yakima Housing Authority and he was a builder based there. In the years since, he has garnered experience from just about every side of the farmworker housing equation, as a private builder, then directing a non-profit in Mabton that renovated housing for the poor, then moving on to the Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing (ORFH), where he helped develop large residential projects for farmworkers. He has led the Diocese of Yakima Housing Services since 2000.
Mario’s current role is a superb fit. As a man with strong religious convictions and very active with his church, he was among the first to recognize that the Yakima Diocese was capable of doing more for its local farmworker parishioners and their communities in the way of housing.
Since its founding six and a half years ago, the Diocese of Yakima Housing Services has already developed 205 units of farmworker housing in Chelan, Yakima, Granger, Mabton, Buena, Mattawa and Warden. Mario and his team have two projects under construction, three in development—and many more in the pipeline. They focus their efforts on seven central Washington counties: Yakima, Klickitat, Kititas, Benton, Chelan, Douglas and Grant. Of these, five have the highest number of farmworkers in the state.
Francisco Toledo, Site Manager, New Life Villa, Mabton, WA, property owned by Diocese of Yakima Housing Services
One of the organization’s guiding philosophies, explains Mario, “Is that we’re not just providing farmworker housing, we’re creating communities.” With every property, a community building and onsite management is established. Mario and his staff work with families to create residence councils to establish families’ goals in terms of education and activities.
They’ve also taken an additional step: creating a new non-profit, Raices Corp—raices means roots in Spanish. The farmworker residents have become members, serve on the board of directors and advocate for their needs. “This is basically unprecedented,” Mario says. “These are folks who in many instances are not very well educated and are marginalized by society. Lawmakers typically don’t hear that voice.”
The Diocese of Yakima Housing Services is expanding its vision beyond rental housing for farmworkers and their families. They’re now working on 40 units of senior housing in Yakima at the campus of the diocese. And, in acknowledgement of the input they get from communities, they’re also expanding into creating home-buying opportunities for the rural poor.
One result: New Life in Mabton. This beautifully realized mixed- development encompasses 10 units of housing for migrant workers and their families and 26 units for farmworker families who live there year round. Adjacent to these homes is land that is under development as 22 home-ownership properties for eligible farmworkers. This is an organization that gets things done.
Mario is seemingly tireless. He currently serves on a number of state boards, including the Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust. He’s helped spearhead the Strategic Community Housing and Economic Development Plan, a coalition of partners who have a community and economic development focus. Invited by the City of Wapato to create a long-term plan for housing development, the coalition is building a model housing project for farmworkers that can be replicated on a regional basis.
The recipient of the Commission’s Friend of Housing Award in 2003 and the Housing Assistance Council’s 2004 Skip Jason Community Service Award, Mario deserves every kudo he’s received for his vision, commitment and hard work. Here at the Commission, we look forward to seeing what the Diocese of Yakima Housing Services accomplishes under his leadership in the next five years.
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The Growers League a key participant in efforts to create housing for farmworkers
Executive Director, Washington Growers League
A key element of the farmworker housing equation is the nature of the work itself. The greatest numbers of workers are needed during harvest time. This is typically a short period (often just a few weeks) in which intense effort is required. Once the crop is in, the growers’ need for workers reverts to maintenance levels and the farmworkers move on to a different farm—or to a different crop in another part of the state or region. There’s an inherent difficulty in trying to create long-term housing solutions for a population whose housing needs can be extremely short term.
Mike Gempler, Executive Director of the Washington Growers League, points out that, during the 80s and early 90s, the legislature focused its efforts on comprehensive solutions that never gained enough support to pass. “These large omnibus bills carry great political weight,” Gempler observes, “Which is why they never got off the ground.”
Rent-A-Tent program makes a difference
Mike credits state senator Margarita Prentice of Renton for getting things moving by advancing incremental improvements, such as modifications to zoning regulations or building codes in specific locations around the state. A much bigger breakthrough came in the late-1990s in the form of the Rent-a-Tent program. Traditionally, cherry pickers would bring tents and camp on the grower’s property. Farmworker advocates had always insisted that the minimum standard should be conventional solid-structure housing. But as Mike explains, “A 20-acre cherry farm needs to hire 50 or more people for a harvest that lasts a week. A larger operation might hire 1200-1500 workers for a two-week period. It doesn’t make sense economically to build solid-structure housing for this limited use.”
Governor Locke and his representatives were instrumental in forging a compromise: a proposal that allows growers to provide OSHA-standard tents for workers during the cherry harvest. These are 14 by 24 foot military-style tents designed to sleep six people. Growers rent the tents—along with refrigerators, showers and toilets—for the week or two when they’re needed. “The Rent-a-Tents are a good fit for this short-term occupancy niche,” says Mike.
Rent-a-Tent Program on a Wenatchee apple orchard (Commission Archive 2000)
Dining unit at Pangborn Field tent camp in East Wenatchee (Commission Archives 2000)
“They work well for growers and they improve the situation for farmworkers. The program has already provided many thousands of bed-nights of shelter for people who otherwise would have been camping in substandard conditions without sanitary facilities.”
In the summer of 2000, the state created an emergency housing facility at Pangborn Field in East Wenatchee (Pangborn Camp). This was a community of tents designed to accommodate 210 farmworkers. At the time, Mike recalls, there was a chorus of naysayers who doubted it would work. They said it was established too late in the season and too far from the worksites.
Instead, it filled quickly; occupants were very happy and it was a big success! Mike sees Pangborn as a watershed event, because it showed there is demand for this type of community camp. Now the model is being extended to other locations around the state, including the Monitor Park Camp.
Solid-structure homes important, too
Of course, conventional housing is still needed. In this area, the Growers League works closely with the Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing, providing development and technical assistance to low-income housing developments. When growers express an interest in developing housing, the Growers League provides planning assistance in the form of models and development budgets. Mike says there are currently four to five groups ready to make a commitment and one or two of these will get built in the coming year.
An important catalyst in this process is the $2.5 million appropriation for the Infrastructure Loan Program passed by the state in this legislative session. This money is available to growers who need a source of capital to help install septic systems, bring in electric power, foundations and water lines for on-farm housing.
Armondo Cuellar mowing under and around the trees at the Knudson Ranch located in the Yakima Valley
The Growers League is also involved with the Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust (the Trust). Mike is on the board’s executive committee and serves as Treasurer. He says it’s a great opportunity for groups who are typically on opposing sides of issues to come together in support of farmworker housing. As Mike puts it, “We’re strongly committed to helping the Trust succeed. There’s a spectrum of housing needs, from niche applications like migrant seasonal housing all the way to homeownership. Each has benefits, and different kinds of housing work for people in various situations. As the Trust gets established, it will be an increasingly important factor in developing more housing.”
Farmworker housing is a win-win
“At the Washington Growers League, our role is to meet the needs of agricultural employers for housing. We have a unique perspective, which is the employer or business perspective. “In our view, housing is not necessarily tied to a particular employer. The employer is a key part of the labor-demand curve. We think grower demand should drive the creation of housing. There is an equilibrium here, as housing is a major factor in the ability of employers to recruit and retain a good workforce. From a business perspective, the ability to provide housing, giving people a place to land, is a great attraction, a key asset.
“It’s also good for the community. It gives people a clean, safe place to stay. Proper housing improves the quality of life for the workforce. The individuals who come to pick apples, cherries and other crops are great people who want their belongings to be secure and who need a place to relax in the evening after they work hard all day. They need facilities to clean up, wash their clothes, cook food and relax with other people. They need a decent place to do that.
“It improves the quality of the community when you have decent housing for the seasonal migrant workforce. A lot of people win when we’re able to build housing either on farms or in communities—the community, the worker, the grower—it’s really a positive.”
The new Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust: Brings together growers, farmworkers and advocates to address long-term housing needs
It was a pleasure to catch up with Juan Aguilar, Board President of the new Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust (the Trust), who stopped by the Commission’s offices in late May to talk about recent developments. Founded in 2003, the Trust has already made significant progress in raising awareness about the lack of adequate housing for farmworkers in our state.
Board President, Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust
As Juan puts it, “Many farmworkers live in dire housing conditions. While they are in our state, harvesting our cherries and apples, cutting asparagus and harvesting hops, many farmworkers live in their vehicles along the riverbanks; in makeshift tents; or in overcrowded conditions, renting a one- or two-bedroom apartment with 16-20 people living in that unit. Something had to be done.”
The catalyst was Senator Patty Murray, who secured $180,000 in funding from HUD to get the project rolling. The Trust is organized as a nonprofit foundation whose mission is to create a better and more sustainable agricultural community in Washington by securing and investing resources to address the full spectrum of housing and related needs of farmworkers.
The critical first step was to recruit a board which included 16 highly committed individuals with significant expertise in the different dimensions of the farmworker housing problem. Juan was the logical choice to head this group. He grew up in the Yakima Valley and has firsthand experience working in the fields. For the past seven years he has served as Washington Mutual’s vice president and community development officer. The special skill he brings to the table is his ability to identify private and public sector funding sources that can lend financial support to the Trust’s efforts.
Juan says it was a good strategic decision to include on the board people with “diverse backgrounds academically and economically and who are on different sides of agricultural or farmworker issues. For example, the board includes members who are growers’ advocates and also representatives of the farmworkers union. These two sides at many times have been at odds with each other. But on this board they are able to come together and put aside personal biases and work to address the single issue of improving farmworker housing.”
The Trust’s initial efforts have been directed at increasing awareness of the problem and securing support from key constituencies. Juan first targeted the financial community because, “In my mind the banks have the most to gain from a labor force that is gainfully employed. It’s their customer base. Fully employed farmworkers will deposit earnings in financial institutions and take out mortgages when they’re ready to transition from rentals to homeownership.”
In January 2005, the Trust hosted a meeting for the banking community in the local offices of Fannie Mae. Juan reports that the bank representatives who heard the presentation came away impressed—and dumbfounded by the need. All of them pledged support, either through corporate giving, committing to join the Trust’s Council of Advisors or providing access to other resources.
Next, the Trust, in conjunction with Senator Murray, approached local philanthropic groups. Washington Mutual hosted the event in their boardroom. Attendees included representatives from Paul Allen’s and Bill & Melinda Gates’ respective foundations, the Enterprise Foundation and many others. Again, the response was positive. Bill A. Longbrake, corporate vice chair at Washington Mutual and Doris Koo of the Enterprise Foundation, led the way with commitments on the spot. Altogether, the meeting netted $150,000 for farmworker housing. And discussions are ongoing with other foundations.
The third major communication initiative was with the Legislature in Olympia. The Trust provided detailed testimony to Hans Dunshee’s Capital Budget Committee in support of increasing the Housing Trust Fund to $100 million. The result was a legislative increase in the Housing Trust Fund which included increased funds for farmworker housing. Another $2.5 million was appropriated for the Infrastructure Loan Program, to help provide necessary water, sewer and electrical hook-ups for on farm housing.
The Trust has identified three specific objectives for 2005-2006:
Increase the number of seasonal “beds” from 3,400 to 5,000
Increase the rate of production of permanent farmworker housing from 250 to 500 units per year
Identify strategies for increasing homeownership among farmworkers through a statewide survey of farmworkers this summer and new pilot projects
Juan points out the survey will encompass the 12 most farm-labor intensive counties in the state and it will help the Trust in three specific ways: First, to better understand the homebuyer education needs of the farmworker population; second, to gain insight into what type of support communities will need in the future; and third, to learn what types of resources the Trust will need to effectively address farmworker housing needs in the future.
Sadly for Washington, Juan is about to leave the area and move to Phoenix. He’ll be heading up a nationwide effort at Key Bank to develop tribal lending programs. As a result he’ll be stepping down as the Trust Board President. However, he plans to stay actively involved with the work of the Trust, and I’ve no doubt we’ll be hearing from him in his new capacity in the future. Best wishes Juan in your new position!
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