AUSTIN (Texas) AMERICAN-STATESMAN

April 25, 2017

 

Texas House to tackle lackluster inspections of farmworker housing

 

By Jeremy Schwartz

The House Committee on Urban Affairs on Tuesday will examine the state’s unfunded inspection program for farmworker housing, which a 2016 American-Statesman investigation found fails to ensure licensed housing for the vast majority of the state’s farmworkers.

The committee is scheduled to take up HB 2365, filed by State Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, and HB 2677, filed by State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, at a hearing this morning. State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, has filed similar legislation in the Senate.

The bills call for stricter housing inspections, tougher penalties for violators, and enhanced community outreach to growers and farmworkers in the state in hopes of uncovering unlicensed housing.

The state agency responsible for inspecting migrant farmworker housing, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, hasn’t levied a single enforcement action against operators of migrant farmworker facilities, even after they fail inspections, the newspaper’s investigation found. State law spells out a high threshold for enforcement action, resulting in zero fines since at least 2005.

In 2013, state regulators learned that workers at a chile farm south of Van Horn were forced to live in shipping containers without screens or ventilation and urinate and defecate in the brush, but levied no penalties.

In 2015, Texas spent less than $2,500 to conduct about 40 inspections of housing facilities provided by growers and labor contractors, most clustered in cotton-growing regions of the Panhandle. As a result, an estimated 9 in 10 Texas migrant farmworkers lack access to licensed housing that meets minimum health and safety standards required by state and federal law.

The Statesman investigation found that other states provide far mmore resources to inspect farmworker housing and uncover facilities operating without licenses.

For example, in 2015 Michigan spent $1.15 million on farmworker housing inspections; Florida spent $828,000.

The Texas bills don’t call for the Legislature to come up with any new money to fund more aggressive inspections, something Rodríguez has said might be untenable in the current climate. Instead, they require the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to dedicate any penalties the department collects toward the inspection efforts. Rodríguez intends to require the department to funnel the money it raises from licensing fees — $10,250 in 2016 — into inspection efforts.