May 10, 2017


Farmworker housing inspection bills snuffed out at Legislature


By Jeremy Schwartz


A bill that would have given teeth to the state’s anemic inspection system for farmworker housing died in the Texas House Thursday, never reaching the floor for a vote before a midnight deadline.

House Bill 2365, authored by Rep. Ramon Romero, Jr., D-Fort Worth, unanimously passed the House Urban Affairs Committee in April, but could not clear the House Calendars Committee. A Senate version of the bill never received a hearing in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs.

Though state law requires that facilities intended to house migrant farmworkers be inspected and licensed, meeting minimum standards of cleanliness and safety, a 2016 American-Statesman investigation found that Texas’ unfunded inspection program ensures licensed housing for just a tiny fraction of farmworkers.

In 2015, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs 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 bills would have required inspectors to be more proactive in finding unlicensed housing, made it easier for farmworkers to submit complaints about substandard housing and raised penalties against housing operators who skirt the law.

“Without additional resources to monitor and improve farmworker housing, Texas farmworkers and their children will continue experiencing inhuman housing conditions,” said Daniela Dwyer, managing attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc. “This puts everyone benefiting from the food supply at peril.”

During an emotional hearing, Dwyer showed members of the Urban Affairs committee photos taken at an unlicensed housing facility in Premont last month with broken windows, large insects and no furnishings.

Justino De Leon, a longtime farmworker from Pharr, told members that he often was forced to live in unlicensed facilities with appalling conditions. “We slept on the floor, on cardboard, with a broken air conditioning,” he said. “Some had to sleep in their trucks.”

Another bill that would have required the housing department to study the availablity and condition of farmworker housing in the state also died Thursday.

“I don’t think anyone can debate how important this is,” Romero said Thursday after it became clear the bill was doomed this session. “We’ve fallen so behind now in our respect for who these workers really are…Hopefully the (housing) department got a wakeup call.”

The Statesman investigation found that the department had not levied a single penalty since 2005 even after failed inspections.

“I’m extremely disappointed we weren’t able to make progress on these bills,” said Sen. José Rodriguez, sponsor of the Senate version. “It’s just not right. It’s a shame.”

Rodríguez was still hopeful that the Legislature would adopt a budget rider that would require the state housing department to spend what it collects through fees and fines on compliance efforts. “I believe it has a good chance,” he said.

And both Romero and Rodríguez said they hope to revive the bills if a special legislative session is called.