Substandard housing for farm workers exposed

Special Report: Substandard housing...

CENTRAL COAST, Calif. - UPDATE 5/4/2017 6 p.m.:

Harvest season is upon us and many farm workers are expected to move into the Salinas Valley. The big question is where? KION took a closer look at the struggle many farm workers face to find suitable housing.

One woman, who we are calling “Lupe,” lives in a substandard situation in East Salinas. Her home is over-crowded, outdated and needs repairs.

“The truth is that it’s not that great where we’re at,” Lupe said. “But we're here and it is was it is."

From the outside, her home looks like your typical four-bedroom townhouse. It’s inside that tells a different story. Four families - 13 people - share one kitchen. One person sleeps on a couch in the living room, while three other families live upstairs.

"It's four of us sleeping here (in one bed), and over there (points to another bed), my husband and daughter sleep," Lupe said.

Stories like hers are playing out all over the Central Coast.

"We hear that many of the farm workers are living in overcrowded conditions, 2-3 families per unit and often times are apartments,” said Alfred Diaz-Infante, President and CEO of Chispa. “They're one-bedroom apartments with 2-3 families living together. Some of them rent homes and again you have the situation of 2-3 families living in a home and then also living in garages and living in sheds."

More dilapidated dwellings can be found in south Monterey County. At one labor camp, we found shoddy roofs, broken windows and exposed wiring.

"I live here because it's what I can afford and if they renovate this place, they're going to charge us a lot more,” one woman told us.

Sabino Lopez is the deputy director at the Center for Community Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps farm worker families find solutions to their housing problems. During his 27-years on the job, he’s investigated substandard housing in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.

"The typical problems in those years were septic tanks were flooded, the drainage to the water was running all over, roof leaks, electrical problems, heater problems,” Lopez said. “You know, sometimes they have a gas leak and they are afraid to report those problems. They fear being evicted by their landlord or retaliation to report problems.”

Lopez said he feels like the problem is worse now. Families are facing the same problems, compounded by fast rising rents on the Central Coast.

There’s no telling how many people are living this way. The most recent data is 16 years old.

According to the California Institute for Rural Studies, at that time, there were an estimated 68,000 farm workers who spent part of the year in Monterey County. Add another 54,000 family members and the county’s farm worker population was the third highest in California, following Fresno and Kern counties.

To get a better grasp of what’s happening now, the city of Salinas, along with Monterey and Santa Cruz counties are undertaking a new farm worker housing study. Crews will go out into the fields during harvest time and ask the workers directly about their housing situation.

“We hope that that study will be done soon so we have a better idea of the kind of need, the needs, the type of housing the farm workers need,” Diaz-Infante said. “Is it more family housing or is it housing that's more designed for unaccompanied farm workers, farm workers that are here without their families. We think it's a combination of both."

Unlike the 2001 survey, this new one will include an action plan.

"If we don't have enough programs to meet those needs, what new programs can we create?” said Jennifer Coile, project manager of the Farm Worker Housing Study and Action Plan. “So this is not just a study to sit on the shelf. That's why it's called the Farm Worker Housing Study and Action Plan. So at the end of gathering the data, also, researching best practices and new ways of financing new alternative types of construction, we will be having regional meetings to develop the action plan among all of us, and that's including agriculture businesses. They are very interested in collaborating in this study in every way."

Though some are taking action now.

Last year, agriculture giant Tanimua & Antle opened Spreckels Crossing as a way to offset a labor shortage. It’s an employee-only residential housing complex with 100 two bedroom/two bathroom units to house its workers.

There’s word two other ag giants have similar plans in the future.

Despite these examples of unsafe housing conditions, there are success stories.

Moro Cojo is an affordable housing community in Castroville. More than 15 years ago, some 300 families, with the help of the CCA and Chispa, fought for the development. Now there are more than 250 townhouses and single family homes in the community. We spoke to one of the families who helped build their own home.

"I was on my stomach putting cement to build our home,” Sandra Alvarez said. “I'm proud living here because it was a lot of sacrifice for us to achieve this home. I am so proud because before I used to rent and I wasn't able to provide this service for my children. I feel satisfied that God gave me this opportunity."

While Sandra’s dream became a reality, back in East Salinas, Lupe can only hope.

"We would like if they would try to make more subsidized housing to help out people in our situation,” Lupe said. “Maybe then we would be able to live more comfortably and have more space for the kids."


Many people living on the Central Coast are struggling with rising housing costs.

Finding affordable, decent housing is especially challenging for the thousands of farm workers and their families in the Salinas Valley.

Many are forced to live in substandard conditions.

It’s a sensitive subject, something even many farm workers are reluctant to openly discuss.

This Thursday at 6 p.m., KION’s Mariana Hicks shows us the overcrowded and sometimes dilapidated places that many farm workers call home and tells us about an effort underway to begin dealing with the complicated problem.


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