SALINAS CALIFORNIAN

Sepember 1, 2017

 

Ag families move ahead on Salinas farm worker housing complex

 

By Amy Wu

 

Three big agriculture families have banded together to work on building a farmworker housing complex in Salinas.

The Nunes family, along with the Hibino and the Rodriguez families, are behind the project to build the Casa Boronda farm worker housing complex, which is expected to house up to 600 employees. It is projected to be completed in time for harvest season in April next year. 

This is the second major farmworker housing project in Salinas Valley and follows in the footsteps of T&A’s farm worker housing widely regarded as a model for the industry. The $17 million housing project in Salinas includes a community room, soccer field and convenience store with free coffee and WiFi.

Casa Boronda is critical as there is a significant lack of housing for farmworkers, who are the backbone of what is a $9 billion agriculture industry in the Salinas Valley.

The local housing market is defined by high rents and home prices and a lack of affordable housing. With an overall housing crunch, migrant workers struggle to find housing and often turn to motels, garages, tool sheds, often packing apartments beyond capacity.

he Nunes family are local grower-shippers, the Hibino family are local farmers and the Rodriguez family are labor contractors based in Yuma, Arizona. 

The complex, officially known as the Casa Boronda agriculture employee housing project, is located on Madison Lane in Monterey County, just outside the fringes of Salinas city proper.

The project involves six buildings which would include 75 units. The housing is expected to resemble the farmworker housing that Tanimura & Antle opened in Spreckels in 2016, including an expansive recreation field and laundry rooms. It plans to use the same architect, Paul Davis Partnership in Monterey.

Tom Nunes Jr., president of The Nunes Co. Inc., said the company ships conventional and organic western vegetables seasonably from California, Arizona and Nevada under the Foxy brand.

“In all locations, we strive for a consistently high-quality workforce to grow and pick our vegetables,” he said. “We are building this facility to attract workers H-2A and domestic. These employees are primarily seasonal with a few full-time. I believe this is a win-win for relief to housing crunch in Salinas area and providing us with a high-quality workforce.”

The Casa Boronda project has been in the pipeline for the last year and a half. The families originally looked at land out at Potter Road but were challenged by lack of infrastructure out there, before deciding on the current site.

Growers said it appears the industry is stepping up to provide much-needed housing for workers, which can also help with worker retention and productivity. Ocean Mist Farms, the artichoke company based in Castroville, is also working on a farm worker housing project.

 

Collective effort

Casa Boronda has the support of numerous local elected officials including Salinas city officials Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter, City Councilmember Gloria De La Rosa, Assemblymember Anna Caballero of the 30th District and Sen. Anthony Canella.

It also has the backing of organizations and agencies including the Monterey Farm Bureau, Grower-Shipper Association and the Community Housing Improvement and Systems Planning Association better known as CHISPA.

Gunter said the city supported the project by pushing it through the permitting process and also submitted a letter of support.

Gunter expects farm worker housing will have a positive impact on the city, for example, by alleviating the motels and hotels that are often at capacity. Many of the city’s motels are occupied by migrant workers or in other cases, homeless families.

“I’m glad to see that ag is stepping up to the plate,” said De La Rosa, noting that such projects were a “long time coming.”  

The city has also commissioned a regional Farmworker Housing study that is currently underway, which examines the challenges and solutions in the area.

Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo oversees District 1, which includes much of the city of Salinas, and called farm worker housing a “win-win” situation for the farm workers, communities and agriculture companies.

 “Now we are seeing projects actually come to fruition. The agriculture leaders stepping up and solving a serious labor crisis, and this is fully paid for by the farmers themselves,” said Alejo.

Alejo said Salinas Valley could be “a model for the entire country where farmers provide beautiful housing for their workforce.”

Moreover, a stable of housing will help drive the local economy, maintaining a steady workforce with added spending power, he said.

But the right mix of farmworker housing is important, said Alfred Diaz-Infante, the president and CEO of CHISPA.

“We were really impressed with the housing built by T&A and it's something we want to continue to support. It is quality housing, well-built and well-designed,” said Diaz-Infante, adding that he doesn’t support alternatives such as bunk beds. “We hope that other growers will continue to follow the T&A model.”

A challenge for big agriculture companies in providing housing is finding available and affordable land.

 

Positive impacts

The impetus to building farm worker housing started in 2015 when Tanimura & Antle was short about 200 field workers and as a result, lost some crop, said Rick Antle, the CEO of T&A. The company acted on the feedback they received from workers who said that lack of housing was their biggest roadblock to staying at the job.

Rather than applying for H-2A workers, where housing is required, the company decided to build housing for a local workforce. More than a year after the housing opened, Antle said the impact has only been positive with the needs of the 2016 and 2017 harvest were met. He added that hiring H-2A workers is inevitably costlier due to the various requirements.    

It’s interesting, a lot of workers say what they like most is that it’s a clean safe environment where they can cook for themselves,” said Antle, noting the housing provides individual apartments. “What we’ve seen is people are more rested and our productivity has gone up in conjunction with this.”

T&A offers housing to its workers in both Salinas and Yuma, Arizona. In total, the housing includes 99 apartments, which can house up to eight persons and costs each worker roughly $125 a month.  The company hires approximately 2,600 field workers, the majority currently in Salinas.