Policy Memo on Farm Worker Housing in Skagit Valley

By Victor Rodriguez, MSW Candidate, University of Washington

Introduction

Safe, decent, and affordable farmworker housing fosters good health and wellbeing for farmworkers. It encourages farmworkers to stay in Washington and continue working in agriculture providing a stable work force for the agriculture industry. Farmworkers provide the necessary labor needed to keep Washington’s states agriculture industry thriving yet farmworkers earn wages so low they can’t afford safe and decent housing or even the very food they harvest. The agricultural industry is a critical component to Washington’s economy providing jobs, food, and tourism significantly benefiting Washingtonian’s. Farmworkers need safe, decent, and affordable housing and agriculture needs a stable labor force. This proposal will I) provide a profile of the agricultural industry and Farmworkers in Washington State II) propose a theoretical framework to understand farmworker housing accessibility III) describe prior legislative actions to address farmworker housing IV) and propose a set of recommendations to address farmworker housing.

Background

The Washington State Department of Agriculture describes the agricultural industry as the “pride” and “cornerstone” of Washington State. In 2007, Washington State’s $46 billion food and agricultural industry contributed 13% to the state’s economy and employed 160,000 people (Top Crops, 2007). The crops and livestock of Washington’s 39,500 farms and ranches was valued at record high $9.40 billion 2011, up from $ 7.9 billion in 2010 (Top Crops, 2007; Knopf, 2012). The evergreen state ranks first in the U.S for production of 11 commodities including apples, sweet cherries, pears, red raspberries, and hops and more than $15 billion in food and agricultural products where exported through Washington ports in 2011 (Top Crops, 2007).

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, farm operators in Washington State are the second largest employers of farmworkers, employing 240,000 workers annually (Farm Labor, 2007). The Employment Security Department of Washington State reports 148,680 farmworkers (Agriculture/Farmworkers, 2011), and Larson (2000) estimated 186,976 migrant and seasonal farmworkers while Wilkerson (2005) estimated 187,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers. The difference of the estimated number of farmworkers is likely due to how the author and/or organization defined “farmworker.” Some estimates include people who engage in field and orchard agriculture, packing and sorting procedures in food processing, horticultural specialties (including nursery operations, greenhouse activities, and crops grown under cover), and reforestation while others exclude some of those activities such as packing and sorting. Others include livestock, poultry, and fisheries while others exclude those activities. In Larson’s (2000) estimates, dependents and family members within their household did not count (p. i)

Data regarding farmworkers in Washington State was been historically scattered and fewer still provide information from the farmworker’s perspective. In an attempt to fill this gap, the Washington State Farmworkers Housing Trust conducted an extensive statewide survey, Washington State Farmworker Survey (2007), aimed at gathering data through one-one interviews from farmworkers themselves. The following data came from that study which provides a profile of farmworkers in Washington State.

Demographics, Family Composition, and Place of Residence

  • Roughly 75% are male
  • Three quarters describe themselves as living with “family” while nearly a quarter live on their own
  • The majority (91%) identify as Mexican; 4% as Mexican American, 3% as indigenous Mexican and 2% Central American
  • 94% speak Spanish in their household
  • 30% are migratory (defined as traveling over 75 miles one way from home to work)

Income

  • The average personal income for all participants was $11,848.
  • Fewer than 7% reported earning more than $20,000 last year.
  • The average household income is $17,331, roughly $3,300 below the federal poverty level for a family of four ($20,650).

Pineda Family Cabin in Sakuma Farms Labor Camp

Sakuma Labor Camp 2 Cabin, Photo by David Bacon 2013

Housing Conditions

  • Nearly 10% of the farmworkers survey described their current living situation as “living outdoors, in a tent, or in a car.”
  • 36% cite problems with their current housing conditions.
  • 68% reported living in a rental unit in the last 30 days.
  • Nearly 10% reported owning their own house in Washington.
  • 73% said better housing would incent them to stay in Washington permanently.
  • 85% said better housing would incent them to continue working in agriculture.

The majority of Farmworkers in Washington State are Mexican with an increasing indigenous population. They earn wages significantly lower than the federal poverty level and the majority are non-home owners. Despite farmworkers crucial contribution to the multi billion-dollar agricultural industry in Washington State, forty-six percent of farmworkers in Washington State are either homeless or cite problems with their current living conditions including rodent and insect infestation, lack of heat, poor water quality, overcrowding, and leaking ceilings (Washington State Farmworker Survey, 2007).

The agriculture industry is without a doubt central aspect of Washington’s economy providing thousands of jobs. The agriculture industry is dependent on farmworker labor but that labor is in jeopardy due the low wages farmworker make and the lack of safe, decent, and affordable housing. Farmworkers make such low wages they literally do not reap the fruits of their labor.

Social conditions: Barriers in Obtaining Housing

Farmer (2004) defines “structural violence” as social arrangements that systematically bring subordinated and disadvantaged groups in harm’s way and puts them at risk for various forms suffering. For farmworkers, this has manifested in many ways including extreme poverty, discrimination, poor working and living conditions, low-educational attainment, health disparities, criminalization, lost of culture and identity, and political-economic-social marginalization. From a structural violence perspective, farmworker’s access to safe, decent, and affordable housing, homelessness, and poverty is a result of farmworkers’ position in the hierarchal context of race, class, gender, and citizenship which mediate farmworker’s experience in political and socio-economic systems. Farmworker’s positionality also informs public perception of them often through the media and political discourse. Historically, Mexicans, who represent 91% of the farmworkers in WA State, have been associated with poverty, laziness, drug and alcohol abuse, street gangs, and “illegals” (sic) in the U.S. These stereotypes serve as the backdrop for public perceptions of farmworkers.

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farm worker child at Labor camp 2, Photo by Star Murray 2013

The lack of popular support for farmworker housing is mediated by broader views of farmworkers, often interconnected with narratives of citizenship that label farmworkers as “illegals,” “undeserving,” “criminals,” and “takers of jobs and social services.” For example, in 2011, the Skagit Valley Farmworker Housing Trust Advisory Council developed a plan for farmworker housing. In this plan, they acknowledge that farmworkers are “vitally important in the agricultural production and determine the quality and safety of food products, and ultimately the sustainability of an agricultural business” (Skagit County Farmworker Housing Action Plan, 2011, p. ii). The plan also presents important data including:

  • 77% percent of farmworkers in Skagit County spend more than the federal standard of 30% of housing cost;
  • 46% live in substandard housing;
  • 43% lived in overcrowded conditions;
  • and 61% percent had children in the home.

Despite these numbers, popular support for farmworker housing in Skagit County is frail. The very first challenge presented by the ACTION PLAN was the “not in my back yard” sentiment consisting of opponents of farmworker housing expressing “concerns about the reduced property value and increased crime” they perceive associated with farmworker housing and ultimately farmworkers themselves (Skagit County Farmworker Housing Action Plan, 2011, p. iii). Yet, national housing research indicates that the evidence clearly fails to support the notion that subsidized rental housing, as a general matter, will depress neighborhood property values or otherwise undermine communities (Don’t Put it Here! Does Affordable Housing Cause Nearby Property Values to Decline?, nd). The “not in my back yard” sentiment is not based on any real facts but instead informed by broader narratives of farmworkers’ immigration status, race, class, and gender that produce stereotypes and reduce housing accessibility.

Poor housing and living arrangements are closely tied to poverty. For example, in Skagit County and Whatcom County, the income needed to afford a 1bedroom apartment is $27,967 (Bringing Washington Home, 2011) yet the average farmworker household income is $17,331, which is $10,636 short of the needed income. Similarly, an individual farmworker (who would more likely to rent a one bedroom apartment) averages $11,848 per year leaving them $16,119 short of the income needed. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible for farmworkers to afford decent housing in Washington State.

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Farm worker child at Sakuma Labor Camp 2, Photo by Marco 2013

A structural violence framework provides analysis of race, class, and citizenship intersections that shape political discourse and popular narratives of farmworkers. Political discourse and popular narratives mediate how farmworkers experience political, socio-cultural, and economic systems. Farmworkers, in general, are seen as source of cheap labor nothing else. This dehumanization leads multiple forms of violence including poor housing, labor exploitation, and discrimination.

Stakeholder Analysis

Despite favorable tax exemptions and record earnings, growers insist that they cannot afford to provide housing and increase wages because they will not be able to compete in the global market. According to Washington State Farm Bureau, labor-intensive crops, a shortage of skilled workers, and Washington’s minimum wage (the highest in the nation) increase labor cost for farmers. In addition, growers believe state and local governments discourage growers from providing on-farm housing because required licenses and permits are hard to get and expensive.

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Mike Gempler (Washington Growers League) tours Sage Bluff housing project. Photo by Geraldine Warner 2012

Farmworker advocates insist that farmworker issues including substandard housing are part of larger issues with the food system. Globalization, U.S economic and immigration policies, and corporate dominance of the food system have created a mass exodus of South American immigrants, especially from Mexico. Transnational “free” trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have displaced thousands of Mexican farmers forcing them to migrate north where they face a militarized boarder and social-economic-political marginalization. Farmworkers marginalized status, advocates insist, leads to various forms of oppression including labor exploitation, discrimination, criminalization, and substandard housing conditions.

Prior Legislative Actions to address Farmworker Housing

Although farmworkers have long been working in the fields and orchards of Washington State, it has only been within the last 15 years that the state has specifically begun to develop policy solutions to the problem (Wilkerson, 2005). Up until that time, the task of farmworker housing was left to small non-profits, the private market, and growers. Growers had been providing housing but due a lack of regulations, most of the housing was substandard (abid). In 1995, legislation was enacted to encourage the development of safe, decent, and affordable housing for migrant farmworkers (Chapter 70.114A RCW). The legislation called for regulation of migrant farmworker housing that led to the development of rules and regulations for temporary migrant housing (Wilkerson, 2005). However, after the rules where adopted in 1996, growers complained about theconfusing regulations, inconsistent interpretations, and lack of financial support (abid). In response, the Department of Health (DOH) adopted a pilot program in 1995 that allowed growers to let workers camp during the short-term cherry season provided that all other site and infrastructure met state regulation (abid). However, the program ended in 1998 after farmworkers advocates insisted that this type of housing is substandard, if not illegal (abid). In attempt to create cohesive and clear regulations in 1999, the Department of Health and the Department of Labor and Industries developed one set of rules, licensing, and regulations, for farmworker housing and the Department of health and the Department of Labor and Industries became primary enforcers.

Funding has been a key barrier for the development of farmworker housing. In the 1990’s, the legislature attempted to encourage investment in farmworker housing by providing tax exemptions and credits to individuals and/or organizations wanting to invest and develop farmworker housing (Wilkerson, 2005). In 1996, the legislature appropriated $2 million from the State Legalization Impact Grant (SLIAG) for new investments in farmworker housing and in 1997, the legislature also provided $1 million in capital fund from the Housing Trust fund but the total $3 mill was exhausted fairly quick (abid). In 1998, Governor Lock declared farmworker housing top housing priority in the state and included $40 million for the development of farmworker housing in his 10-year capital plan. From 1999-2007, the state invested $65 million for farmworker housing (Wilkerson, 2007). However, the recent recession has significantly reduced state investment in farmworker housing. In fact, the Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust is no longer operating. The recession has also impacted local communities, for example, Skagit County developed an action plan that would address farmworker housing from 2010-2015, but that effort has also ended.

State and local governments and growers generally acknowledge the importance agricultural business to WA State while recognizing that farmworkers are instrumental to its sustainability. However, neither the state nor growers have put forth consistent political and financial support.

Policy Recommendations

#1: Use an interdisciplinary and systematic framework to understand and address farmworker housing accessibility. Addressing farmworker housing requires an interdisciplinary approach that situates farmworker’s within economic, political, and socio-cultural hierarchal systems. Indeed, farmworkers are generally towards the bottom of the hierarchies, which limits their accessibility to various basic needs including housing. In addition, approaching farmworker housing through an interdisciplinary and systematic approach sheds light on the various elements that contribute to housing accessibility among farmworkers (Discrimination, poverty, immigrations status, language barriers etc.). Understanding and accounting for these various elements will lead to comprehensive, strategic, relevant, and well-rounded housing development strategies.

#2: Set the minimum wage at the $15 per hour for farmworkers: A higher minimum wage will increase housing accessibility for farmworkers, cultivate a stable workforce, and strengthen outreach efforts in times of labor shortages. As presented earlier in this proposal, poverty is a significant factor that contributes housing accessibility and based on current wages, it is nearly impossible for farmworkers to afford safe and decent housing. By increasing the minimum wage, farmworkers will be more likely to afford safe and decent housing. At the same time, it will incentivize workers to come, work, and stay in Washington State providing growers with more stable workforce. Finally, in times of labor shortages, outreach efforts would more successful because more people would be willing to work for $15. In fact, it might event encourage workers from other industries to consider farm labor.

#3: Ban the use of the H2A program in Washington State: According to farmworkers, there is no need for the H2A program because there is no shortage in labor. There are plenty of qualified workers but most are not willing to work for such low wages, no opportunities for overtime, hazardous working conditions, and poor housing. On the other hand, farmers consider the program “troublesome” and do not necessarily like it. The existence of the H2A program is based on perception of labor shortages, which could be resolved by increasing the minimum wage and providing easier access to safe, decent and affordable housing.

#4:Reinstate the Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust (WSFHT): As mentioned earlier in this proposal, most state efforts have dwindled away during the past several years and reinstating the WSFHT will strengthen farmworker housing development by providing leadership, resources, research, and policies that will encourage local communities to develop farmworker housing. In addition, any investment the state makes towards farmworker housing is also an investment towards a steady and stable workforce for the agriculture industry. According to the Washington State Farmworkers Survey (2006) administered by the WSFHT, 85% of farmworkers cited that better housing would incent them to continue working in agriculture and 75% cited that that better housing would incent to stay in Washington permanently. Safe, decent, and affordable housing will encourage farmworkers to stay in WA and continue working in agriculture providing farm owners with a steady and stable workforce and ultimately strengthening the agriculture industry in Washington State.

WSFHT members should represent various stakeholders and disciplines including farmworkers, growers, educators, advocates, immigration specialist, social workers, real estate professionals, and faith-based groups. A multidisciplinary team will be able to see the “whole picture” and develop strategies that address the various elements that contribute to housing accessibility.

#5: Develop and implement a social media campaign acknowledging farmworker contributions: The “not in my yard” sentiment is a barrier that can be addressed by intentionally educating the public about the important contributions that farmworkers provide to Washington State. Dispelling negative stereotypes about farmworkers will provide more opportunities and investment towards farmworker housing. Public support is a critical component for farmworker housing projects and communities need to know that farmworkers are a benefit not a burden for their communities.

Strategies for Policy Implementation

Grassroots Organizing: Farmworkers and their allies must continue their grassroots efforts to expose the various mechanisms growers use to suppress their workers including wage theft, substandard housing, unsafe and discriminatory working conditions, and guest worker programs such as the H2A program. Public support can be an instrumental tool to get growers and the state to cede farmworker demands through local, state, and national boycotts on growers who refuse to treat their workers with respect and dignity. In addition, grassroots efforts can educate the general public about growers who use a “buy local” method to get consumers to buy their products. But, as farmworkers currently on strike in Skagit County point out, “Just because its local, doesn’t mean its fair.”

Grassroots organizing will cultivate leadership within farmworkers making their cause more sustainable and strong. Leaders are instrumental in advocacy and lobbying efforts as seen in the legislative work session that took place in Everett, WA this past fall where four farmworkers presented their first account experience of the many unfair working and living condition that farmworkers are exposed to. It was clear that their testimony had significant impact, which could not be substituted by advocates and allies.

Develop and implement an anti-H2A program campaign: The H2A program suppose to address the labor shortage but farmworkers have seen the H2A program used as tactic to keep workers from striking. If we can shut down the H2A program, growers will have look for domestic workers, which will give farmworkers more leverage when they strike.

Lobbying: It will be important for farmworkers and their allies to lobby for the their demands. The lobbying should include diverse stakeholders including farmworkers, advocates, social workers, educators, businesses, and consumers. Lobbying will keep the issue “fresh” and in the legislator’s minds.

Identify Legislative Champions: The implementation of a policy that will increase housing accessibility for farmworkers will require legislators who are willing to push for such policies. John Mckoy, chair of the House Community Development, Housing & Tribal Affairs Committee, seems to be potential candidate. His committee considers bills relating to housing, including the accessibility and affordability of housing and state assistance to low-income housing.

Social Media Campaign: A social media campaign through news articles, blogs, Facebook, and other resources will be important in changing the public perception of farmworkers. Creating a new narrative that presents the important contributions that farmworkers make will increase support for farmworker issues including housing, dispel negative stereotypes, and ultimately decrease the “not in my back yard’ sentiment.

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References

Agriculture/farmworkers – May 16, 2011. (n.d.). Agriculture/farmworkers. Retrieved November 1, 2013, from http://www.esd.wa.gov/newsandinformation/faq/agriculture-farmworker-faq.php

Bringing Washington Home: 2011 Affortable Housing Report . (n.d.). Nationla Low Income Housing Coalition . Retrieved November 1, 2013, from http://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/BringingWAHome2011.pdf

“Don’t Put it Here!”: Does affordable Housing Cause Nearby Property Values to Decline?. (n.d.). Furman Center for Estate and Urban Policy . Retrieved November 1, 2013, from http://furmancenter.org

Farm Labor. (2007.). 2007 Census of Agriculture . Retrieved November 1, 2013, from http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Online_Highlights/Fact_Sheets/Economics/farm_labor.pdf

Farmer, P. (2004). An Anthropology Of Structural Violence. Current Anthropology, 45(3), 305-325. Retrieved November 1, 2013, from http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/382250

Knopf, D. (2012). Value of Washington’s 2011 Agricultural Production Sets Record High. National Agricultural Statistics Service . Retrieved November 1, 2013, from http://agr.wa.gov/AgInWA/docs/2011WaAgValuesUSDAPressRelease.pdf

Larson, A. (2000). Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers Enumeration Profile Study . National Center for Farmworker Health . Retrieved November 1, 2013, from http://www.ncfh.org/enumeration/PDF11%20Washington.pdf

Skagit County Farmworker Housing Action Plan. (2011). Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing . Retrieved November 1, 2013, from http://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/BringingWAHome2011.pdf

Top Crops. (2007). Agriculture: A Cornerstone of Washington’s Economy. Retrieved November 1, 2013, from http://agr.wa.gov/AgInWA/

Washington State Farmworkers Survey. (2007). Applied Research Survey Research. Retrieved November 1, 2013, from http://www.appliedsurveyresearch.org/storage/database/homelessness/farmworkers/WashingtonFarmworkers_2006.pdf

Wilkerson, J. (2005). Farmworker Housing in Washington State. State of Washington Department of Commerce. Retrieved November 1, 2013, from http://www.commerce.wa.gov/Documents/HTF-Farm-Worker-Housing-Report.pdf

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