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California farmworkers cheer new housing in town scarred by mass shooting

In News, World
May 18, 2024

Half Moon Bay, California – Almost a year and a half after a mass shooting took the lives of seven farmworkers in the town of Half Moon Bay, California, a new project is seeking to address the poor living conditions experienced by many of the area’s agricultural workers.

On Tuesday, the city’s planning commission approved a proposal for a 40-unit building that will serve as lodging for elderly farmworkers, some of whom continue working into their 70s and 80s due to low wages and the sky-high cost of living.

The decision comes after the 2023 shooting prompted an outcry over the ramshackle housing available for Half Moon Bay’s farmworkers.

Politicians visiting after the bloodshed, including Governor Gavin Newsom, noted that some farmworkers were even living in shipping containers.

“After the shooting, everyone’s eyes were on Half Moon Bay, and politicians and the community were rallying around our farmworkers,” said Belinda Hernandez Arriaga, founder of the group Ayudando Latinos A Sonar (ALAS), which provides support and services for local farmworkers.

Farmworkers stack boxes of crops in a truckbed
Advocates say farmworkers in California work in difficult conditions, often for low pay [File: Terry Chea/AP Photo]

But before passing this week, the plans for the five-story building faced backlash from city planners who raised concerns about whether the structure would fit with the style and character of the surrounding area.

That setback dimmed optimism that the shooting, carried out by a 67-year-old former agricultural employee, might result in much-needed assistance for the farmworker community.

Migrants make up the vast majority of California’s farmworkers, and they are often paid the minimum wage for arduous labour, despite the fact that the state leads the country in the value of crops sold.

According to the California government, agriculture is a $54bn industry in the state, with an extra $100bn in related commerce.

Faced with the possibility of rejection, the housing proposal moved forward only after media scrutiny and pressure from the governor’s office.

Governor Newsom, who has taken a tough stance against cities that stymie efforts to build lodging during the state’s housing crisis, hinted at potential legal action against Half Moon Bay over the delay.

In a press release last week, Newsom called the project’s delay “egregious” and said the state would take “all necessary steps” if it was not approved.

Governor Gavin Newsom
California Governor Gavin Newsom delivered remarks after a shooting in Half Moon Bay on January 24, 2023 [File: Aaron Kehoe/AP Photo]

Some local officials, however, chafed at what they saw as undue intervention in local planning decisions.

“It felt like an attack on our planning commission and our process of community development,” Joaquin Jimenez, the city’s mayor and a former farmworker advocate, told Al Jazeera, adding that the project had been moving through an approvals process with community input.

Jimenez also said he felt the issue has been unfairly portrayed in media coverage.

But affordable housing advocates say that the incident illustrates the numerous obstacles to constructing new residences in a state where homeowners and planning councils often quibble over concerns such as building height and parking.

“The fact that the governor had to get involved to push this over the line is shocking,” said Ned Resnikoff, policy director at the organisation California YIMBY.

His group’s name is an acronym for its mission: “Yes in my backyard” (YIMBY) is a popular rallying cry for housing advocates who reject a restrictive approach to building, sometimes called “not in my backyard” or NIMBY.

Resnikoff pointed to the stalled Half Moon Bay project — and Governor Newsom’s response — as indicative of a larger trend in the state. “It’s a perfect illustration of why the state has been getting more involved in local land-use decisions.”

Local farmworker advocates like Arriaga also welcomed the intervention.

“After the shooting, Governor Newsom met with farmworkers and told them he would advocate for them and work to address this issue,” she said. “He’s keeping his promise, not attacking the city.”

Essential workers

Over the last several years, farmworkers in Half Moon Bay and the surrounding area have faced a string of tragedies and challenges to their livelihood.

Many workers helped keep the state’s agricultural sector functioning during the onset of COVID-19, continuing to work while other industries shuttered. Since many were undocumented, they faced the pandemic’s economic fallout with less access to assistance programmes.

Wildfires and flooding in the area also caused disruptions to their work or the loss of housing.

“There were things like the fires and the flooding that were mentally and emotionally exhausting, and then there was this mass shooting,” said Arriaga. “There was a lot of trauma in the community.”

Farmworkers rush to protect crops from floodwater
Farmworkers dig out a drainage ditch to keep floodwater from covering strawberry crops as the Salinas River overflows in Monterey County, California, on January 13, 2023 [File: Noah Berger/AP Photo]

The median hourly wage of a California agricultural worker is about $20 per hour, according to the state’s Employee Development Department.

In some counties, however, that figure is closer to $15 an hour, and advocates are quick to point out that the undocumented status of many workers leaves them vulnerable to wage theft, when employees compensate workers at a rate below their official wage.

A 2022 report (PDF) by the University of California at Merced (UC Merced) found that nearly one in five California farmworkers reported not being paid the wages they had earned.

California is also home to some of the most expensive housing markets in the US, with costs outstripping wages. According to California’s government, rent has increased by 20 percent or more in some parts of the state since 2020.

In order to cope with high rental costs, farmworkers often pack into cramped, dilapidated housing in an effort to save money.

“It’s extremely common for farmworkers to live with multiple people in an apartment, some sharing rooms and others finding spots in the living room,” said Lucas Zucker, co-executive director for the group Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which works with farmworker communities in California’s Central Coast region.

He notes that the UC Merced study found that about 25 percent of the state’s farmworkers reported sleeping in a room with three or more people, and nearly 40 percent reported having trouble keeping their homes cool during periods of hot weather.

“Imagine spending your day doing this strenuous job in the fields and coming home, exhausted, to a home where you don’t have any space for yourself, or being a kid trying to study and do homework.”

Arriaga hopes that the 40-unit building, which will include an office to help connect residents to services such as medical care, can offer other cities a template for supporting farmworkers.

“We talked to one gentleman who has been working in the fields for 30 years and has never had a medical appointment,” she said. “We need to stop and consider this community who deserve dignified and humane housing that honours them.”

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