TEXAS OBSERVER

May 12, 2017

 

Texas Lege on Farmworker Housing Crisis: Better Luck Next Time

 

Nine in 10 Texas farmworkers lack access to licensed housing, and many live without running water, electricity or ventilation.

 

By Gus Bova

Among the many bills that died in the Texas House Thursday night was a measure to improve housing for the state’s 200,000 migrant farmworkers. The sweeping legislation would have transformed the state’s broken regulatory system for such housing, but when midnight struck, the bill hadn’t reached the floor and its authors declared it dead.

“The biggest takeaway for me is that 50 or 60 years after my dad came here as a farmworker, the state of Texas hasn’t improved farmworker conditions, and is actually going in the opposite direction,” Representative Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, told the Observer.

Farmworkers earn poverty-level wages and relocate from harvest to harvest, making them dependent on housing provided by employers. Many are on “guest worker” visas, and their employers are required by federal law to provide adequate housing.

But nine in 10 Texas farmworkers lack access to licensed housing, with many sleeping packed together on floors in bug-infested, ramshackle structures that lack running water, electricity or ventilation. Some laborers have sued employers over working conditions and settled for undisclosed amounts. The agency tasked with oversight, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA), has never punished a single facility since it took over the program in 2005, according to a 2016 investigation by the Austin American-Statesman.

“I’m extremely disappointed we weren’t able to make progress on these bills,” Senator José Rodríguez, an El Paso Democrat who was a farmworker himself, told the Austin American-Statesman. “It’s just not right. It’s a shame.”

Romero’s bill, House Bill 2365, sailed unanimously through a House committee in late April, but it languished in the Calendars committee — which sets the agenda for the full House — until after Thursday’s deadline. A heap of other bills faced the same fate as contentious proposals drew hours of debate, Republican leadership prioritized other legislation and the tea party caucus used a legislative maneuver to torpedo dozens of bills after feeling slighted by their colleagues.

“It’s hard to get a bill passed,” Romero said. “Most folks don’t understand how many moving parts there are. This year, there was a huge backlog in [the House Calendars Committee]. Most of my bills that did get heard spent 30 days in calendars before they reached the floor. So why did it die? The process is long.”

HB 2365 would have mandated that TDHCA regularly inspect farmworker housing and follow up on complaints. It would have increased fines for noncompliant growers — money that would have been used to fund further enforcement — and it would have empowered workers and advocacy organizations to appeal the agency’s licensing decisions.

The legislation, which state budget analysts said would have paid for itself, was filed more than a month after the session began. Rodriguez’ identical Senate bill never got a hearing.

Romero said he hasn’t given up hope. He said he will work to raise awareness so that an interim committee might take up farmworker housing as an issue to study before the 2019 Legislature convenes.

“There’s no doubt I’ll be filing this legislation again next session,” Romero said . “I’ll be filing probably the same exact omnibus bill, with potentially some tweaks, but I’ll be filing it on the first day of filing.”