© Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times / TNS
A worker in a fersa field in Watsonville, California in 2014. The chronic lack of safe and affordable housing for farmworkers has worsened, workers and advocates say, as the tentacles of the San Francisco Bay Area housing crisis came to that region.

WATSONVILLE, California – Farmworkers Carmella and Antoline live deep in Santa Cruz County, beyond miles of berries and farmland, in a single-story farmhouse. Duct tape runs across the floorboards, and a bare light bulb illuminates the kitchen and its worn appliances.

The owner moved there to a second family a few months ago. The house is rented for $ 3,000 a month, almost double the price Carmella and Antoline paid when they moved there a decade ago. It is approximately the cost of a small two-bedroom apartment in Silicon Valley. Here, with that you rent a two-bedroom, two-bathroom farm for four adults and five children.

Carmella, 40, and Antoline, 45, like many farmworkers, are undocumented and identified with this news organization by their first name only. The couple say they endured constant threats and grudges with their new roommates, and they work seven days a week to support their family.

They feel they have little choice. « If we don’t work, » said Carmella, « they will kick us out. »

The chronic shortage of safe and affordable housing for farmworkers has become even more acute, say workers and activists, as the tentacles of the housing crisis in the Bay Area have reached the region. Long-term low-wage workers are being pushed further to the limit.

Santa Cruz and Monterey counties need to add 33,159 housing units, an increase of 13%, just to alleviate overcrowding in farmworker homes, according to a regional task force. Most of those crowded houses include tenants from different families living under the same roof, according to the team. And about one in seven residents sleeps outside of rooms, in living and dining rooms, garages, hallways, and closets.

« We read about gentrification in San Francisco and the Bay Area, » said Assemblyman Robert Rivas, a Hollister Democrat and author of a new law that encourages more rural housing, « but it is happening before our eyes. »

During the growing season, up to 90 thousand agricultural workers harvest fruits and vegetables, tend the fields and maintain the land in the valleys of Salinas and Pájaro. About 90% were born and raised in Mexico.

« The availability of farm worker housing is a persistent problem, » said Dave Puglia of the Western Producers Association. « And it’s gotten worse. »

Rents in outlying Santa Cruz and Monterey counties have increased nearly 50% since 2011, as Silicon Valley refugees have traded longer trips for cheaper housing.

Watsonville, a six-square-mile agricultural town with an urban center still recovering from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, has become a destination for Bay Area workers. Its population grew almost 4% between 2010 and 2017, adding 2,250 new residents, according to census figures. However, in the last five years, only 440 new houses and apartments have been built in the city.

« The challenges that the Bay Area has as a whole are extending to all communities large and small, » said Watsonville City Manager Matt Huffaker. The City Council has been pro-development, he said, but open space is limited and the city center is still marked by empty storefronts and old apartment buildings.

The search for affordable housing has brought more families, higher housing prices, and more social pressure than the region has seen in two decades. « That puts a burden on members of our existing community, » he said.

The average wage for a California farm worker is $ 12.60 an hour, about $ 26,200 a year. A family of two workers earning $ 50,000 a year would spend more than half their wages in the typical apartment in Santa Cruz or Monterey counties. Activists say farm workers on the central coast now need three or four incomes to pay rent in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.

Buying a home is even more out of reach. The median home price in Watsonville is approximately $ 600,000, while the median household income is $ 51,500. The ratio of house prices to income is 11 to 1, much higher than even in San Francisco, Oakland and San José.

As housing costs increased and more families concentrated in smaller spaces, the city had to spend more on support services, including parks, recreation, and social programs. « With the high cost of living and low median income, it has a cascading effect, » said Huffaker.

A broad poll of workers released last year by a government and business consortium found a growing housing crisis:

· Two-thirds of workers in the Salinas and Pájaro valleys lived in highly crowded units by federal standards

· In a typical house, at least five people shared a single bathroom. Migrant workers and families sharing households with unrelated families shared a bathroom between seven people

· Almost 9 out of 10 workers rent, and few farm workers own a home or mobile home

Ann López, executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families, said her organization has seen increasing pressures that lead families and children to unsafe conditions.

López said his organization learned of 16 people who shared a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house. Families have come to the center for help to escape violent domestic relationships, or to replace bad stoves, refrigerators, and floors.

Workers have little choice but to share tight spaces. « The bottom line is that there are no homes, » said López. « It is shameful ».

The wages of farmworkers, who tend thousands of acres of grapes, berries, and farm produce in the valleys, have not kept pace with housing costs.

Ernestina Solorio came to the United States about 20 years ago and has a work visa. Pick strawberries at a Salinas Valley farm and earn around $ 460, after tax, for a typical week in the harvest season.

There’s just no room in Solorio’s budget to pay the $ 2,000 a month in rent, well above the $ 1,300 when he moved here 12 years ago for a three-bedroom house in downtown Watsonville. Solorio rents a room to another family of farm workers.

On any given night, about 10 people from two families sleep under the same roof and share a bathroom. If rents continue to rise, he said through a translator, « I don’t understand how I am going to survive. »

The threats and insistence of the Trump administration that it will crack down on immigration have added a layer of stress and fear to the community. Few are willing to complain about their apartments, concerned that an owner may evict them and leave them homeless.

What is at stake is a lot. The housing shortage exacerbates other industry and community challenges and threatens the long-term health of the region’s $ 5 billion agricultural industry, experts say.

But even when farmers and worker advocates agree on the issue, they have bitterly fought over a new law, effective Jan. 1, that makes it easier to build homes for workers on surplus land. It requires farm owners to turn over the management of the units to a non-profit organization, avoiding the conflict that employers also function as owners.

But farmers, including a coalition of farm offices, family-owned winemakers, fruit growers and others, say the crisis will worsen. They are particularly upset by a provision that prohibits some state funds from being used to build dormitories for seasonal immigrant workers with H-2A visas. Visas require producers and harvesters to provide free housing for immigrant workers during their temporary stays.

Puglia of the Western Producers Association said farmers are wary of the provisions and will not accept the program. « They won’t do it. »

Rivas, a Hollister assemblyman in his first term, called the move an initial step.

« When the average price of a house is close to $ 600,000 in this valley, it is a problem. It is a big, big problem, » Rivas said during an interview at this Salinas office. « When you look at the pressures in Silicon Valley and the San José region, the average price of a home is $ 1.2 million. That is putting great pressure on this region. « 

New housing and construction plans continue too slowly for many in the community. « Families need decent, safe, and affordable housing, » said Julie Conway, housing manager for Santa Cruz County. « You cannot cultivate without labor. »

While threats of immigration raids and violence persist, some workers have covered the exterior of their homes with security cameras. Others have dogs on their front porch.

Dominga, 35, lives with her husband and four daughters. The couple arrived 13 years ago from Oaxaca, on a dangerous five-night trip through the desert with daughters, their then two daughters, one and two years old.

Parents work in the strawberry fields, and on one visit Dominga’s jeans were stained with dirt and crushed strawberries. Her skin was darkened from hours of sun exposure.

« Sometimes I don’t want to get up in the morning, » he said. « I am so tired ».

Competition for reasonably priced apartments in Watsonville is fierce. Her income has increased from $ 1,600 to $ 2,000 since 2014. The income she and her husband earn from farm work have not grown as fast. « We struggled a lot to find this place, » he said through an interpreter.

The family rents the living room, covered with sheets hanging on clotheslines, from their two-bedroom apartment to another migrant family. Dominga’s teenage daughters share a room, and younger children share the main room with their parents.

Dominga said she is concerned about her daughters and her future. « I am trying, » he said, as his two youngest children played nearby, « to keep these children out of the fields. »

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