Justice for farm worker families in labor housing case

Seven plaintiffs are sharing $115,000 in damages awarded in a court-ordered settlement with Red Marchi & Sons, a Pescadero farming family that subjected tenants to dangerously unsafe housing conditions.

“It sends a very strong message that property owners have a responsibility to keep their tenants safe – and if they don’t do it people will speak out, and that there’s a remedy,” says Kerry Lobel, Executive Director of Puente.

Dow House Garage, with exposed light bulb and foam mattress to catch rain water (Photo by Lisel Holdenried/CRLA)

The San Mateo County Superior Court awarded the settlement in April 2012 to four adults and two children. The plaintiffs all used to live at a Marchi-owned labor-housing site on Bean Hollow Road in Pescadero, but they had to move when the housing grew intolerable. One family received an extra $10,000 when the court determined that Marchi had evicted them as an act of retribution.

The squalid housing – leaky ceilings, bugs and slugs creeping in through holes in the floor, overcrowded rooms, exposed light bulbs and other fire hazards – came to light in 2010 when it emerged that Marchi’s tenants were drinking water polluted with nitrates.

Outside of Dow House, boards to cover holes

Only a few tenants had the courage to speak out about their overall housing conditions. Lisel Holdenried, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc., took on their case for free.

“Nobody wanted to complain because there’s no place to move to. There’s no other place to live,” says Holdenried.

Marchi resolved his housing issues, but the lack of decent, affordable housing for South Coast farm and nursery workers is still a serious problem. Puente has been working with the county to try to get loans for local farmers to rehabilitate buildings to make them more livable, and is trying to see whether other nonprofits might also step in to help.

From the earliest days, Puente let people know they would find help to move if they needed to. Puente has been a resource to help people understand their rights under the law.

“We’re really clear, working with farmers, what their responsibilities are. We’re clear in working with farm workers, what their rights are,” says Lobel.

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