County report: Coastside needs 1,000 new homes for ag workers

For a clear picture of the housing crisis on the South Coast, meet Mira and Carlos Lopez. They and their three school-age children have not had a home since they were evicted from their apartment in September when their landlord needed to renovate the building. Mira’s brother Miguel was living with them too.

The family has bounced around Pescadero since then, sleeping in their car, parked outside the home of Lina’s sister. At the dawn of 2017, they had no prospects for permanent housing. The children go to local schools; their parents work in local agriculture.

“We tried to find a place for six people, but it was impossible,” says Rita Mancera, Executive Director of Puente. Finding a whole house for rent on the South Coast, at affordable prices, is surpassingly rare. Mancera has personally called everyone she can think of with even a spare room. Puente paid to put the family up in a hotel in Half Moon Bay a couple of nights and a camp in Pescadero another couple of nights, but it was not sustainable and the parents wanted to provide a more permanent place to their children. Their car has been their solution for almost three months now. (Their names have been changed for this story).

The lack of affordable housing stock is one aspect of the urgent need for long-term, high-quality farm worker housing on the South Coast. And the need is particularly desperate for families who are doubled- and tripled-up in dilapidated trailers, or one-bedrooms built for far fewer people.

To many, the living conditions some local families endure would be unimaginable. But they withstand them and will not complain for fear of being evicted, and because there are so few alternatives for better or more spacious housing near their jobs.

The roots of this issue cut across economic, regulatory and political terrain. The widely-acknowledged problem has been quantified for the very first time in a county-sponsored Agricultural Workforce Housing Needs Assessment, which can be read here.

The county released the study this fall based on surveys of farm owners and more than 300 face-to-face interviews with agricultural workers living on the Coastside (interviews which Puente helped facilitate).

Among the highlights:

  • The need for safe, modern housing for farm workers and their families is much larger than you might suspect: the report calls for 1,020 to 1,140 housing units along the Coastside, incorporating the South Coast and the greater Half Moon Bay area.
  • The most pressing need is for family housing, although single male workers are living in barracks that must be modernized or replaced. Most of the workforce lives here with family members, and two-thirds have lived in San Mateo County for 11 years or more. They are deeply entwined in our communities, yet some families are living in outdated housing meant for a temporary, seasonal workforce. Others are living in affordable family housing in Half Moon Bay.
  • Roughly 50 percent of the agricultural workforce is undocumented, and many are part of mixed-status families where parents, siblings and children have a different immigration status.
  • Some agricultural employees feel their employer-provided housing impedes their job prospects. The coupling of work to a worker’s living situation makes him or her less likely to seek newer housing elsewhere, because they won’t want to give up their jobs.
  • Farm owners strongly desire a solution. Some of them are open to building new housing but don’t have the capital or wherewithal to navigate the legal and regulatory process, which can take years. Other farmers lease their land and don’t control the decision on whether to build.

With everyone on the same page about the problems, the discussion turns to solutions. “We’re in the phase of understanding what can be done, now that we’ve outlined the problem,” says Kerry Lobel, Puente’s Strategic Projects Advisor. She says the county seems committed to breaking down financial and regulatory barriers that have impeded new housing on the South Coast for the last 50 years. Supervisor Don Horsley’s office has made solving the Coastside housing crisis a top priority, and his office is coordinating with county Housing, Planning and Environmental Health staff to tackle their share of the solution.

However, Lobel adds that if officials are truly committed to solving the problem, they will probably need to muster the finances to do so. Nonprofit housing developers that have investigated the possibility of building on the South Coast have concluded it’s a losing financial proposition – there just isn’t enough federal or state matching money to make it possible to subsidize a project of that scale.

“The county has to decide if it really wants to invest dollars to solve this problem. If it does, it can,” Lobel says, citing the example of Napa County, which built dormitory complexes for agricultural workers and continues to subsidize their rent, regardless of immigration status.

Both farm owners and farm workers recognize that lack of housing is a significant strain on the agricultural economy. “It’s a burden on both sides economically. Without housing, employers are having difficulty retaining and recruiting good workers,” explains Heather Peters, a county Housing & Community Development Specialist.

Under leadership from Supervisor Horsley’s office, the county has greatly streamlined county regulations that govern construction of farm labor housing, and waived a lot of permit fees. The county has hired an agricultural ‘ombudsman’ to help answer questions about building on the coast, and established regular Coastside office hours for the Planning Department, to save people a long trip to Redwood City.

The county also funded a pilot program for the rehabilitation and replacement of existing trailers, but the program has had few takers on the South Coast. Lack of potable water is often an issue, so the Planning Department is now using GIS to explore potentially feasible locations for new housing on parcels zoned for agricultural housing.

There’s also the question of what to build. A dormitory complex? Cottages? A manufactured home community? The county has hired two experts to review best practices for farm labor housing in other parts of California, and report back.

The simplest-seeming ideas have not panned out. Taking note of the fact that so many homes on the South Coast are vacation homes, and unoccupied for most of the year, Puente has proposed forming a spinoff nonprofit that would rent out the empty homes to local families. The proposal has not yet gained traction with potential funders. Mancera thought to house the Lopez family by placing them in such a home, but she was turned down by the homeowners she approached. The county has set aside money for a trailer rehabilitation and replacement program, but the program has had few takers so far.

A new administration in Washington is likely to create uncertainty around immigration policy, which could strongly affect the stability of the local workforce and, in turn, the future of housing on the South Coast, says Lobel.

The South Coast is defined by, and depends on, the people who work in agriculture. So are local schools. Fundamentally, the housing issue is an economic one. Lobel says we ignore it at our peril.

“Think of the number of people disappearing from our town, all the kids disappearing from our schools, and the restaurant workers, and the farm and nursery workers disappearing from their places of work – this paints a clear and devastating picture of our future if we fail to act now.”

To support Puente’s housing efforts, donate here or contact Kerry Lobel at

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