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No vacancy: Central Coast growers battle housing shortage, politics as they bring in temporary labor to supplement their workforce 

The ghostly shadow of a burned-out house frame no longer muddies the view of Mads Place in Nipomo. It’s gone. Day-glow orange signs that cut off entry to the street are the only reminder that something bad happened here.

Greco Realty leads potential homebuyers off South Oakglen Avenue to the lawns of houses that were once set aside for temporary guest workers who’d be brought into the United States through the H-2A program.

But a Tasmanian-devil-sized dust cloud descended over the investment almost as soon as it was planned. Three of the seven homes were already completed, two were under construction, and 16 farm laborers would reside in each.

click to enlarge AFTER-WORK GRIND:  Betteravia Farms H-2A program workers hang out at their temporary home, Broadway Eleven, in Santa Maria after working in the fields all day. The grower converted this old Budget Inn into a place to house foreign laborers brought in under temporary work visas. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • AFTER-WORK GRIND: Betteravia Farms H-2A program workers hang out at their temporary home, Broadway Eleven, in Santa Maria after working in the fields all day. The grower converted this old Budget Inn into a place to house foreign laborers brought in under temporary work visas.

It was hush, hush—only rumors until the day somebody spotted bunk beds being moved into one of the finished homes. Then the neighborhood split at the seams, spilling out pissed-off residents with a lot to say. It would have meant too many people, too many foreign men, in the neighborhood. What about property values? Then, late one early April night, a disgruntled someone (or many someones) decided to set fire to one of the homes that was under construction. 

An eerie red glow flickered through the fog, lighting up the normally dark neighborhood. It woke the neighbors, who groggily trailed out of their houses to watch. 

In the morning, Halsell Builders (the builders) employees and Greg and Donna France of Mar Vista Berries (the buyers) stared at the black cracked wood that was left of the structure, naked except for a thin line of red-and-white caution tape wrapped around its perimeter. They huddled around cell phones with disbelief on their faces. 

Less than a week later, the Frances announced at a press conference that the deal was off. There would no longer be a Mads Farm housing development on Mads Place for laborers to sleep in. Not in Nipomo. Not yet, anyway. 

“Our struggle to do the right thing by finding a quality housing solution will be repeated by others in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties and throughout the state as farmers face a growing labor shortage in this country,” Greg said at the time. 

Finding labor is a big problem, according to SLO County 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton, who owns Valley Farm Supply in Santa Maria with her husband and hears from Santa Maria Valley farmers with fields straddling SLO and Santa Barbara counties. 

“I know that people feel like their crops are rotting in the fields because there’s not enough labor,” Compton said. “Farmers have a hard time getting consistent local help. ... You can’t operate a business like that.”

Farmers are increasingly looking to augment their labor supply by legally bringing temporary guest workers into the United States through the H-2A program, which was established in the early 1980s. But with that labor force comes the requirement of providing housing for them in an area with rental vacancy rates between 2 and 4 percent. 

“People don’t expect a hotel next to them. They don’t expect high density,” Compton said. “We know we need this type of housing in this county, so where do we put it?” 

That answer changes depending on whom you talk to. Compton thinks that agricultural workers should be housed near the fields they work in, but that land often contains prime soil for agriculture. And sometimes that ag land is leased, not owned, by the growers—as is the case with the Frances, according to Compton.

In the past, farmers and labor contractors have quietly rented homes and apartments for their workers, but the need for both workers and housing is becoming too great to continue along that path. In Santa Maria, old decrepit motels have been converted into workforce housing with some success (although, there was initial backlash), and the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission recently approved what essentially amounts to dormitories for 300 to 600 workers. But reactions like Nipomo’s have put farmers on edge. Several declined to talk to New Times for this story. 

Picker shortage

The fire that burned down the Frances’ labor housing prospects happened in April. It’s now June, the arson is still under investigation, and the Frances still don’t want to tell their story. New Times tried to contact them at the Mar Vista Berry office in Santa Maria and through the California Strawberry Commission. 

Commission spokesperson Carolyn O’Donnell said the Frances just want to put the whole ordeal behind them and move on.

Strawberries don’t wait for housing to be built or workers to be found. When those little tart treats are ready to be picked (like they are now), there isn’t a grace period. And machine harvesting isn’t an option. Pick them by hand or lose them. 

“Strawberries are a very labor-intensive crop. … It takes human interaction to determine good from bad, rotten from not,” O’Donnell said. “That means that when you buy a clamshell from the store, it’s very likely that the last person who touched them was the person that packed it.” 

If the Department of Labor’s H-2A applications for growers are any indication, chances are that clamshell was also packed by a guest worker. In May, Fresh Harvest Inc., a farm labor contractor, applied for 315 workers to pick strawberries in SLO and Santa Barbara counties for Eclipse Berry Farms, Darrensberries Inc., and Valle El Paraiso Berry Farms—and that contractor isn’t the only one. The contracts stipulate that the workers will all be making $11.89 an hour and get housing and transportation provided as required by law. The majority of them will be staying at the Laze-E-Daze converted motel in Santa Maria.

In 2014, the Scaroni Family of Companies, which owns Fresh Harvest Inc., was trying to purchase the Olivera Street Apartments in Guadalupe, spruce them up, and use those to house H-2A workers. But once the city found out about the plans and just how high density the apartments might become, the City Council passed an emergency ordinance banning “boarding houses” in that part of the city unless the project applies for a conditional-use permit. 

The labor contractor pulled out of the sale, but not before CEO Steve Scaroni wrote a scathing letter to the city, alleging discrimination and questioning the legality of the ordinance. Olivera Street Apartments sued the city for a violation of constitutional rights. City Attorney Dave Fleishman told New Times the city is hoping to get the case into mediation sometime this summer.

According to Dan Stephens, a spokesperson with the California Department of Labor, use of the H-2A program has grown dramatically in the state over the last four years. In 2012, the department certified approximately 3,000 guest workers through the program. In 2015, the department certified more than 8,500. By the second quarter of this year, the department had already certified 6,000. 

Stephens said the top user of the program is Fresh Harvest, with 3,176 H-2A workers in 2015, and that Santa Barbara and Monterey counties have seen the largest increase of guest workers.

He gave New Times three reasons that the H-2A program—already well established on the East Coast—will continue to grow in California: There’s a slowdown in Mexico-U.S. migration, the domestic labor force is aging, and the program ensures that workers will be available when they are needed most—during the peak harvest period. 

Carlos Castaneda of Castaneda & Sons, a labor contractor providing workers to about 12 growers in SLO and Santa Barbara counties, said the slowdown in migration started under President George W. Bush and hasn’t stopped under President Barack Obama.

“I’ve only met two people in the last two years who’ve made it through [the border], and they were both from Central America,” Castaneda said. “And in the ’90s, you could meet 20 to 25 people a week, easily.” 

Political consternation

After 9/11, Bush strengthened security along the country’s borders, and that trend continued under the Obama administration with what Castaneda called the “mass deportation” of 2 million immigrants. As he puts it, both major political parties have affected the number of people crossing the border to work hard-labor jobs like the ones in agriculture. 

click to enlarge LABOR INTENSIVE:  Crops such as strawberries and leafy greens require hands to pick and sort them. Farmers dealing with what they call a local labor shortage are increasingly turning to the H-2A program to help supplement their workforce. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • LABOR INTENSIVE: Crops such as strawberries and leafy greens require hands to pick and sort them. Farmers dealing with what they call a local labor shortage are increasingly turning to the H-2A program to help supplement their workforce.

And now, the drug cartels pretty much control the whole southern side of the border, Castaneda said, so the risk to anyone with enough gumption to try and cross into the United States illegally has gone up exponentially. You could lose your life. You could get deported immediately, upon entry. You could spend all that money to hire a guide and reap nothing in return.

“Why take that risk?” Castaneda said. “So where does that leave growers?” 

Castaneda’s father crossed the border from Mexico in 1964. He followed the harvest up and down the West Coast, from job to job. Every winter, he would return to his home in Mexico, going back and forth until he met his wife and eventually started a family in the U.S. 

But he wasn’t a part of any guest worker program. The Bracero Program, which was initiated in 1942 through agreements between the U.S. and Mexico to enable millions of Mexican laborers to temporarily work in American agricultural fields, had already been eliminated. And the H-2A program wouldn’t become a thing for almost two decades. 

“The border was so porous, you could walk over the border,” Castaneda said. “He was ‘illegal,’ which is an ugly word today.”

When he was a kid, Castaneda would work alongside his father in the fields on weekends and during the summer. Every time he speaks about it, he looks at his palms, as if the calluses remain after all these years. But he doesn’t look at them with disdain.

“I mean, I enjoyed it, but it’s not for everybody,” he said with a smile. “It’s hard freakin’ work.”

His father started Castaneda and Sons in 1991.

“Since ’91, we’ve never had a local [person] apply to a help wanted ad. It’s all immigrant work,” he said, adding that this kind of work has almost always been immigrant work. “It’s something that doesn’t appear to be changing.” 

As much as Castaneda didn’t want to talk politics, immigration reform and the agricultural workforce can’t be separated—and he is so passionate about trying to make things better for workers, immigrants, and growers that he can’t toe the line without jumping over it. 

He’s traveled to Sacramento and Washington, D.C., many times. He’s pushed for comprehensive immigration reform, which he said they were so close to passing in 2013, President Obama said he would sign the bill (Senate Bill 744, also known as the Gang of Eight after the eight senators who worked on the bipartisan bill) if it passed out of the House of Representatives. But of course, it didn’t. You can thank the Tea Party for that one. 

“You could feel the pulse, that there was no intent to pass a comprehensive bill. All that was talked about was border security and deportation rhetoric,” he said and shook his head, adding that the people who leave their homes leave for a reason. “You know, when you hear politicians speaking with such venom about this, and they’ve never left their realm of safety … .”

And while the H-2A program isn’t perfect, for now it’s the only way to bring more labor into the U.S. Plus, it’s legal. With states requiring things like E-Verify, an Internet-based system that determines someone’s eligibility to work in the United States, and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement doing things like threatening to raid farms in the Santa Maria Valley, employing workers who don’t have all the “right” paperwork is risky for both the employee and the employer. 

For the last three years, Castaneda has traveled to the Mexican state of Durango to recruit H-2A laborers. The company pays for all their travel and transportation expenses as required by law. He makes appointments for them at the U.S. Consulate so they can get approved for a visa. Background checks are performed, and workers go through a rigorous interview process that, among other things, determines the likelihood that they will overstay their work visa.

Castaneda and Sons will bring in about 150 workers through the program this year. And before he can get his applications approved to even start recruiting workers, the housing that will be provided to them has to get the nod from the Department of Labor. But Castaneda didn’t want to tell New Times where those workers would be housed, especially after what happened in Nipomo. It’s a safety thing. 

“I was livid when I heard [about] that,” he said. “That’s the part that’s shocking. The public perception is completely wrong.”

Housing and discrimination

Obviously, there’s a certain segment of the population that is anti-immigrant, anti-foreign workforce, and wants to deport all illegal immigrants and build a wall across the border. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has made that abundantly clear. But there’s also the other side of the coin. Immigration rights activists like the Center for Rural Legal Assistance’s (CRLA) Cynthia Rice don’t like the H-2A program because she says it can lead to workers rights violations against both foreign and domestic workers.

And as much as politicians including Supervisor Compton would like to leave race out of the discussion (and she really does: “So my problem as a supervisor is how do we take race out of it. I want to take race out of it and people want to bring race into it.”), it can’t be done. 

Racist remarks inevitably made their way into Facebook and article discussion posts about the Frances’ farmworker housing plans in Nipomo. 

In the first week of June, the issue of discrimination came up at the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission hearing about Betteravia Farms’ plans to build housing for 300 to 600 farmworkers outside of Santa Maria at Curletti Ranch. The project was eventually approved, but the conversation about potential discrimination came up because of a county Sheriff’s Office request that the project applicant come up with a public safety plan. 

“When I read their letter the first time, I thought, ‘Jesus, this is kind of racist.’ We don’t have the need to add this condition onto any other project,” 5th District Commissioner Daniel Blough said during the hearing. “I just think it’s unnecessary.” 

Sheriff’s Cmmdr. Craig Bonner assured commissioners that it was the density of the housing and limited staffing at the Santa Maria substation that warranted the request. Betteravia Farms/BoniPak CEO Joe Leonard said they were happy to come to an agreement with the Sheriff’s Office, but added “We really haven’t had any problems with this group. If we have a problem, we ship them back to Mexico.” 

Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino spoke at the hearing, encouraging the planning commission to approve the plan because of how well things have gone with the motel on Broadway, which Betteravia Farms converted to H-2A housing.

“We have had zero, I want to say it again, zero calls for service in that community,” she said, reiterating that many of the hotels that have been converted to H-2A housing were once hotspots for crime in Santa Maria. “People say there’s less crime.”

click to enlarge PRIZED BERRY:  Although per-capita strawberry consumption in the U.S. has doubled in the last 20 years, it’s not necessarily the acreage of strawberry fields causing a labor shortage in California. The Mexico-to-U.S. migration pattern that once supplied labor in abundance has stagnated and changed directions. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PRIZED BERRY: Although per-capita strawberry consumption in the U.S. has doubled in the last 20 years, it’s not necessarily the acreage of strawberry fields causing a labor shortage in California. The Mexico-to-U.S. migration pattern that once supplied labor in abundance has stagnated and changed directions.

In total, Leonard said his company has only had to fire three H-2A employees. If a farm/labor contractor decides to fire an employee, the work visa gets pulled and is no longer valid. This is something Rice with the CRLA said can lead to abuse; workers can be afraid to speak up because they don’t want to lose their visas. And although Betteravia Farms has a reputation for treating its workers well, not all local growers boast that same reputation. 

The CRLA filed a lawsuit against Mixtepec Farming in May on behalf of Fernando Nava and Emmanuel Rogel Flores for breaching the terms of a 2015 H-2A contract. Failing to pay regular and overtime wages, charging them for housing, not reimbursing them for transportation costs, and wrongful termination are among some of the allegations. 

“Our clients were recruited in Mexico and given great promises about what they would receive,” Rice said. “This is symptomatic of the H-2A program in California as well as across the nation.”

Mixtepec didn’t respond to New Times’ request for comment.

Castaneda, for one, is glad that organizations like the CRLA exist to ferret out those businesses and people that violate workers rights and abuse programs like H-2A, because it can help discern the bad from the good. Agriculture needs all the good it can get to survive.

“Ag is the backbone to this community, and to see it survive would mean the world to me. And for it to survive, you need a labor force, and the only way to bring in that labor force is through the H-2A program,” he said. “And the biggest hurdle to the H-2A program is housing.”

Editor Camillia Lanham can be reached at clanham@newtimesslo.com. Sun Staff Writer Brenna Swanston contributed to this article.

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