Ventura County Farm Worker Housing Summit

By Sheryl Hamlinprogram

Hosted by House Farm Workers!, decease the five hour conference featured a diverse group of speakers from banking, discount real estate, state politics, film making, agribusiness and planning.


Each speaker presented his or her area of expertise with respect to farm worker housing.

John Krist, a 7 year veteran as CEO of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, provided statistics on county farms:

  • Ventura County farms are small compared to California farms at one third the size, but they contain high-value crops totaling $2.1 billion which translates into $23,500 per acre and nine times the value per acre than Fresno county.
  • The workers, whose median age is 32, are foreign born, 50% undocumented, low paid, 10% US citizens and 53% Spanish only speaking.
  • During the last 20 years, Ventura County has lost 440 acres per year of farmland to development.
  • The median size farm is 12 acres with 78% less than 50 acres which means that these small farms have no surplus space for housing.
  • The 1990 wages of $16,797 per year is slightly more than the 2012 wage of $16,257 (adjusted for inflation). In 1990, there were 24,771 farm worker jobs while in 2012 there were 45,491.
  • The top 5 crops in 2013 were: 1) strawberry, 2) avocado, 3) raspberry, 4) nursery stock and 5) lemon. All are labor intensive while number four, nursery stock, is dependent on the economy and is still down because home renovation spending has diminished after 2007.

This graphic shows  a mult-billion dollar agriculture market by crop type from the Farm Bureau’s crop report.


David Erickson, Ph.D. History from Berkeley, wrote a book on the history of affordable housing. He spoke first about housing and health, saying that without a sense of control over your future, your health deteriorates, giving a fascinating study of SF MUNI bus drivers who were given impossible schedules to meet. He said that a slice of the Cap and Trade fund could go to affordable housing. A reference for this approach can be found here with the relevant standard as follows:

Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program—$130 million to support the implementation of sustainable communities strategies required by Chapter 728, Statutes of 2008 (SB 375), and to provide similar support to other areas with GHG reduction policies, but not subject to SB 375 requirements. The Strategic Growth Council will coordinate this program. Projects that benefit disadvantaged communities will be given priority. Also, projects will reduce GHG emissions by increasing transit ridership, active transportation (walking/biking), affordable housing near transit stations, preservation of agricultural land, and local planning that promotes infill development and reduces the number of vehicle miles traveled.

He discussed a concept called the “Social Impact Bond”, one of which was promoted by Goldman Sachs on the topic of prisoner recidivism. He said, for example, it is three times more expensive to send a kid to prison than to Harvard, so that “proven upstream interventions” have paybacks downstream in lives.

A reduction in the number of uninsured people has sent non-profit hospitals to look outside their normal sphere of providing free medical services as fulfillment of their “community benefit” requirement necessary for maintenance of non-profit status. Consequently they are looking at housing as a vehicle to provide a “community benefit”.

Dr. Erickson reminded the audience that Social Security, a pay-as-you-go system, has barely 2 workers supporting one retiree now, where it was five to one in 1960, indicating an alarming demographic implication of an aging population whose birth rate is declining. Many of the people paying into Social Security in the future could be children living and learning in these modern complexes.

Karen Flock, Real Estate Development Director of Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation , spoke on “Models of Farm Worker Housing”. She said that CEDC had provided 1754 homes with 275 in process. California overall has a shortage of affordable housing by almost one million residences. Here is a list of affordable housing in Ventura County. Incomes are down and housing prices up, exacerbating the housing problem.

CEDC acts as the General Partner in the projects and passes the 9% Rural Development Tax Credit to the limited partners, such as Wells Fargo. She also mentioned that a slice of Cap and Trade Funds might be available for affordable housing, as well as The California Low Income Housing Tax Credit and the National Housing Trust Fund which is sourced from Fannie Mae profits. Many of the CEDC projects involve multiple sources of funding and complicated restrictions. For example, some like the Rodney Fernandez Gardens is income restricted, but others such as the Azahar Place has  some units reserved for low income and some for low-income/farm workers. The map of their Ventura County rental projects is here.

Yissel Barajas, vice president of human resources, Reiter Affiliated Companies, showed pictures and layouts of their company units for unaccompanied workers. These pictures were taken at their facility in Mexico. They tried to replicate this model in California, but California cities do not allow temporary or transient housing. Reiter is practicing a values-based business model by providing services such as health care clinics to employees.

Chris Stephens directs the Ventura County’s Resource Management Agency (RMA). He reminded the audience that it is 50 years this month since the March from Delano and is the 50th anniversary of the 1st Greenbelt Agreement. He cited SOAR as a vehicle to ensure urban development takes place in cities.

He related how his department had to explain to the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) the topology and agrarian uses of the land in Ventura County. SCAG showed huge swaths of land as “developable”. However SCAG did not understand the topology of Ventura county. With slopes greater than 20% eliminated, the “developable” parcels decreased. Next greenbelts and farmland were eliminated, which also reduced “developable” parcels. The final criterion was sewer service. County Sewer Agencies (CSA) have limited service, thus reducing “developable” land. Water is now the issue. High density development extracts more ground water.

The blue dots on the map below which was developed by the Ventura County RMA Planning Department shows 185 of the 290 parcels identified for potential farm worker housing sites using the following assumptions:

  • Privately owned
  • Vacant or undeveloped
  • Zoned AE (Agriculture Exclusive)
  • Not within the Coastal Zone
  • Not owned by a public or governmental entity
  • Parcel size of 15 acres or greater
  • Within or adjacent to a sphere of influence or city boundary


The Ventura County RMA provides two documents about planning for farm worker housing: Farmworker Housing Complexes and Farmworker and Animal Caretaker Dwelling Units. The following chart lists potential Farmworker Housing Complexes per the standards described in the previously mentioned planning document and a photograph of a recent farm worker complex.




The California Coalition for Rural Housing (CCRH) is one of the oldest state low-income housing coalitions in the United States. Robert Wiener has been the executive director since 1981.

The CCRH has placed billions of dollars of financing into housing through a coalition of federal, state and local governments, investors, lenders and funders, private foundations, for-profit and non-profit developers, advocates, local citizens, workers and growers.

The story of Measuire L in Napa (2002) where the vintners agreed to tax themselves to provide farm worker housing was revelatory. The citizens and growers in Napa realized that not only was wine part of their branding, but tourism. They wanted to ensure that the tourists to Napa Valley experienced picture perfect scenes of the valley, which includes housing. The New York Times wrote about it here. Housing was built using rammed earth technology, a sustainable building technique using reinforced soil tailings from wineries.

Because of “global change”, crops can be grown year-round, given enough water. He described projects in Saint Helena, Indio, Monterey County, Kern County which provide year-round farm worker housing for these rich agricultural areas.

Proposed future funding sources for housing may include a new real estate transfer fee.

Community Group Reports

Breakout groups discussed strategies and barriers to farm worker housing in their area. Discussion in the Santa Paula/Fillmore/Pire group about the Rodney Fernandez Gardens project revisited the litigious struggle to complete this project. The large project (four stories) was to be constructed across the street from a private project that was in disrepair. Citizens feared that that new project would deteriorate similarly. The height was also a factor.  After a lawsuit, the project was approved at three stories. Council Member Gherardi, who participated in this group, suggested that police stats be collected on this project to see how it compares to other areas. Planning Director Minsk said that less code enforcement was required in a new building.

Each breakout group brought back goals for 2015-2025 – the next decade of Farm Worker Housing.


Where to Next?

With incomes relatively flat for the last decade and housing prices escalating, the housing shortage affects not only farm workers. How to normalize this disparity is the subject of many books, dissertations and social experiments.

Future seminars could include how local Housing Authorities plan for farm worker housing, if at all. How many citizens have read their local city’s Housing Element? Click here for Santa Paula’s plan from 2013-2021.

How would other models of housing assistance such as housing vouchers improve farm workers’ ability to find quality housing? HUD has a detailed, but well written article on the subject of affordable housing. Are there market based approaches such as profit sharing for harvesters that would help? And, of course, how are immigration and labor laws affecting farm worker housing? The grand question is how to make harvesting into a valued profession so that families can live respectfully within this profession. 


Sheryl Hamlin: With an MS in Industrial Engineering, Sheryl Hamlin spent years in technology with stints at Motorola, Tandem Computers and various startups. She has been on the boards of neighborhood organizations both in San Francisco and Palm Springs where planning issues were her specialty. She now resides in Santa Paula and loves the historic fabric of the city.  Ms. Hamlin’s blog Stealth Fashion  and  technology product ‘ Plug and Play Webmaster’.

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