SANTA ROSA (California) PRESS-DEMOCRAT

September 8, 2017

 

Sonoma County vineyards want to build bunkhouses for more than 170 seasonal farmworkers

 

By J.D. Morris

 

Eyeing both the region’s persistent lack of affordable homes and the more recent labor shortage in its signature wine industry, Sonoma County is advancing plans for five vineyards to build housing for more than 170 farmworkers.

 

The Board of Supervisors will consider authorizing agreements Tuesday for two 37-bed bunkhouses that would shelter workers at vineyards in the Geyserville area. If approved, the agreements would follow similar plans supervisors signed off on last month to bring bunkhouses with nearly 100 total beds for farmworkers near Santa Rosa, Healdsburg and Annapolis.

 

“We certainly have a labor shortage in Sonoma County, but I think that’s an effect of a housing shortage — there’s not enough affordable housing,” said Cameron Mauritson, vineyard manager for Mauritson Farms, which will host one of the bunkhouses.

 

“The way we saw it is we didn’t have a choice: We can’t not have people here to get the work done, but if they can’t afford to live here, then we have to figure out as a business how to make sure that we can control some housing that our employees live in.”

 

The bunkhouses are targeted for workers hired through the federal government’s H-2A program, which allows the agriculture industry to employ foreign guest workers for jobs that last as long as 10 months.

 

Local grape growers have increasingly turned to the program as a way to address a short supply of available vineyard labor, hiring about 300 workers through H-2A this year, but employers have to provide housing in order to participate.

 

The five current projects came as part of a consortium of vineyards working in conjunction with county officials, relying on the same architect and engineer to create plans that can serve as a model for others in the future, said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers.

 

Supervisor James Gore, whose north county district includes four of the five vineyards seeking to build bunkhouses, called the package of five projects “an important step” toward providing more housing options.

 

“One area that we need to focus on, absolutely, is workforce housing, and that deals with labor at all different levels, whether you’re talking about teachers being able to live in the towns where they teach, or you’re talking about farmers and farmworkers being able to live and work in a place in Sonoma County and not lose all their earnings to rent,” Gore said. “We need to do more.”

 

Yet the vast majority of Sonoma County farmworkers are permanent residents. A county study released in 2015 showed 88 percent of surveyed farmworkers considered Sonoma County their permanent home, and housing was a critical issue for them. Farmworker families with annual incomes of $20,000 spent an estimated 30 percent to 54 percent of their pay on housing, and between 34 percent and 67 percent of county farmworkers lived in crowded homes, according to the study.

 

Juan Garcia, who until recently worked for United Farm Workers in Santa Rosa, said while positive, the bunkhouse projects fail to address what he sees as the bigger issue: the high cost of living for farmworkers and their families already living in the county.

 

“That should be one of our top priorities in the county, trying to keep farmworkers local,” Garcia said. “A part of the housing issue is also part of the worker shortage, because no one can afford to live in Sonoma County. So we (should) make it easier and more affordable for people to live in Sonoma County, be it farmworkers or other kinds of workers.”

 

Nearly 30 percent of grape growers already offer some kind of workforce housing, including secondary units and other residences more suitable for permanent residents and their families, Kruse said.

 

And the industry has plans to pursue more of that in the future using an approach similar to the bunkhouse project.

 

“Phase one was really looking at bunkhouses, because in order to apply for the federal H-2A program, it’s a much longer process, and housing is the first step,” Kruse said. “But the next phase of this is looking at how do we do a similar model where we create a universally available plan for a second unit on our agriculture-zoned properties in the county that would be more appropriate for families.”

 

Similarly, Gore wants to court developers to bring a full range of workforce housing options to the county.

“I am personally looking for people to come and work with us to build all types of housing for farmworkers,” Gore said. “If they’re willing to assure that it will be for farmworkers and that it’ll be in a good location, good sleeping quarters and other things, then we’re ready to do the work needed to be able to permit them out.”