SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

July 11, 2017

 

Farmworker housing may get a subsidy boost in Napa

 

By Esther Mobley

 

Napa County’s vineyard owners have voted to renew and increase their self-imposed subsidy to the county’s three farmworker housing centers, from $10 per vineyard acre owned to $15. The results of the mail-in vote were tallied and announced at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

“There’s a lot of checks and balances to make sure that folks really wanted to do this,” said Alfredo Pedroza, supervisor for Napa’s fourth district. “These growers have a history of taxing themselves. What’s really compelling is their willingness to invest in our farmworkers.”

Tuesday’s measure ensures a resource critical to the farmworker housing centers, which house 180 unaccompanied men employed as vineyard workers in Napa Valley. (Estimates put the county’s vineyard workforce at over 6,000.) The residents pay $14 a day, as of July 1. The centers provide three meals a day to residents as well as English literacy classes, health clinics and more. Men sleep two to a room.

In order for the $15-per-acre assessment to go into effect, however, Napa’s growers need authorization from the state. Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, and state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, are sponsoring a bill that would authorize Napa’s grape growers to raise their self-assessed subsidy. Pending passage of that bill, the increased assessment will go into effect for the coming fiscal year.

The self-assessment has been in place since 2002 and generates a little under $500,000 for the center each year, said Pedroza. (Rent collected from the centers’ residents generates another roughly $500,000. The balance of the centers’ $1.3 million budget has typically come from either philanthropic donations or county reserves.) Growers must vote to renew the assessment every five years; the previous fee system expired on June 30.

This year’s vote passed by 83.6 percent — up from the last renewal vote, in 2012, at 76 percent. (A majority vote is needed.)

As housing costs rise in Napa County — the median rent is now $2,750 per month — and as Napa’s vineyard labor increasingly shifts from a migrant to a year-round workforce, the need for affordable, permanent housing is more dire than ever for these vital players in the county’s main industry.

Despite the high prices that Napa Valley grapes command — $4,666 per ton on average in 2016 — and the relatively high wages that Napa vineyard workers receive ($14.50 an hour, on average, last year), many workers must make long daily commutes to homes in more affordable areas like Fairfield, Stockton and Fresno.

“For the folks staying at our centers, there is no other place to stay,” said Pedroza. “It’s either they stay here, or they’re sleeping in cars.”

More help is on the way for the centers. California’s state budget, signed last week by Gov. Jerry Brown, includes a $250,000 grant to the housing centers — the first state money they’ve received. Assemblywoman Aguiar-Curry has introduced a bill that would require the state to sustain that funding annually.

Pedroza praised the self-assessment as a testament to the centers’ self-sufficiency — a unique feature among farmworker housing centers in California. “The message has been, it’s all hands on deck,” he said. “We’re not just asking the state for support; we’re asking our industry to step up. The state recognizes Napa’s uniqueness and wants to invest in it.”

By contrast, the state’s Office of Migrant Services, which operates 24 farmworker housing centers statewide, is funded only by residents’ rent ($11-$12.50 per night) and state funding ($5.6 million), not by employers.

Still, the farmworker housing centers accommodate just a sliver of Napa’s large and diverse workforce. Only unaccompanied men can stay at the three centers, though women comprise a large percentage of the county’s vineyard workers, too. The centers do not solve the housing crisis for families. Pedroza indicated that the county is working on solutions to these problems, but nothing concrete is yet in the works.

Tuesday’s vote results were nevertheless a welcome show of support. “What a great message to our farmworker community,” Pedroza said, “that there’s appreciation for the work they do.”