YAKIMA (Washington) HERALD-REPUBLIC

March 25, 2018

 

Yakima effort aims to introduce temporary housing for farmworkers

Yakima is exploring a plan to allow temporary housing in the city limits for farmworkers, which currently is allowed only in unincorporated areas.

By Caitlin Bain

 

A plan to allow temporary worker housing in Yakima could boost the city’s economy, keep valuable farmland productive and give workers a better quality of life, advocates say.

Yakima is in the final stages of completing a proposal to allow farmworker housing in the city. Currently, the housing is only allowed in unincorporated parts of the county. But if approved by the planning commission and, ultimately, the City Council, property owners could create farmworker housing in seven city zones, including suburban residential, local business and general commercial.

The effort is being called a “progressive step” for farmworker housing by the Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA).

Creating farmworker housing within the city limits would be a boon to workers who often have to rely on their employers for transportation into town. It also could boost the city’s economy because workers are likely to spend more money in the city, said Ermelindo Escobedo, an Olympia resident who represents the property owner whose housing proposal first raised the issue in November.

According to a study from WAFLA, local temporary workers contributed about $38.8 million from their private wages to the state’s economy in 2015.

Escobedo’s client has proposed converting her day-care facility on West Lincoln Avenue to a 20-person temporary farmworker housing facility.

And Borton Fruit recently purchased the former Fairbridge Inn and Suites on North First Street. No decisions have been made, but company officials have said at least one potential buyer is considering turning the hotel into temporary farmworker housing.

Expanding locations where farmworker housing would be allowed also could decrease a statewide temporary farmworker housing deficit, said WAFLA membership and communications director Kim Bresler.

“There’s just a huge need for (growers) who want a legal workforce,” Bresler said. “But there’s an inadequate supply of farmworker housing. Some workers are even living in their cars.”

Employer-provided housing is a requirement for using the H-2A, more commonly known as temporary worker, program. Last year, some 18,500 temporary farmworkers were employed through the H-2A program in Washington, said Washington Tree Fruit Association president Jon DeVaney.

That number is expected to increase this year, in part because of the state’s low unemployment, more secure national borders and increasing number of agricultural workers statewide who are getting older and no longer able to work in the industry, he said.

Planning Commissioner Patricia Byers said allowing farmworker housing in a variety of areas fits with the city’s 2040 plan for more “complex zoning.” The city’s long-range plan includes allowing more commingling in city zones, instead of strictly residential or business.

But Yakima resident and former City Council candidate Sandy Belzer-Brendale wonders why the change to the city planning code is needed.

“It doesn’t make sense to bring (farmworkers) into town where people aren’t working,” she said. “They’re not going to live where they’re working. They’re going to have to travel back and forth. I don’t think it’s something we need in Yakima or want.”

The proposed change to city code is expected to go in front of the city’s planning commission for a public hearing Wednesday. A City Council hearing would be in April or May. The council is then expected to vote on the proposed ordinance.