Jul 7, 2010
Florida growers not required to provide housing

By Everett Brazill III, Southern Correspondent

This is part of an VGN series on migrant labor housing conditions in different states. Housing in Michigan was covered in the previous issue. This story examines conditions in Florida.

Hillsborough County, Fla., has seen an increase in migrant worker housing projects in recent years. That is partly due to increasing acres of strawberries, the county’s dominant crop, giving it the title of “Winter Strawberry Capital of the World.”

But it’s also due to a relaxation of ordinances that streamlined the zoning process for many growers, offering them the opportunity to bypass public hearings that had caused problems for many growers who sought to construct quality housing for their migrant workers.

“A lot of growers have put in new housing, and a lot of it has to do with the new county ordinances,” said Michelle Williamson, human resources director for G&F Farms in Dover.

“If you have to go through zoning, it’s a public hearing, and people came in complaining,” she said. “That’s what happened in the past, and it’s very disheartening.”

G&F Farms is a 75-acre operation in Hillsborough County that relies heavily on migrant labor for a variety of crops, including cucumbers, hot peppers, green beans and green and yellow squash. Strawberries are the dominant crop, and the farm employs 95 migrant workers at the peak of harvest – 99 percent of whom are housed on-site.

The farm began housing migrant workers in the late 1970s, and was one of the first farms in the county to offer on-site housing.

G&F Farms houses migrant workers in two locations, Plant City and Dover. Most of the housing units are mobile homes, bought directly from the manufacturer. There are a few modifications, namely that each kitchen has two stoves, but otherwise they are of standard construction, each housing up to eight workers.

G&F Farms recently opened new housing near farm headquarters.

“If you go down in the south part of the county, where it’s primarily citrus and tomatoes, you have a lot of trailer parks, duplexes and apartments that growers are renting, but it’s nothing like what you’d find on someone’s farm,” Williamson said.

She sees many benefits to housing workers on-site. It guarantees workers will be available during the critical harvest months, and also benefits the workers who otherwise may not be able to find housing near the farm.

Growers often can offer better housing than what is available in surrounding communities.

“Our workers are traveling form one crop to the other, and this is something they don’t have to worry about,” she said. “It is not cheap by any means, but if you have a crop as perishable as we do, you have to have the crew to harvest them.”

Housing alternative
The new ordinances haven’t benefited everyone. Many farms don’t provide migrant worker housing because they can’t afford the added expenses, or choose not to provide it to avoid regulations and the headaches they bring.

One alternative is Rural Neighborhoods, a Florida City-based nonprofit organization that provides housing to migrant workers who don’t have that option from their employers.

Rural Neighborhoods dates back to 1982, when Miami-Dade County sought to remove a 400-trailer migrant labor camp. The county changed its mind due to public outcry, and the organization was formed to administer the camp. Hurricane Andrew demolished the camp in 1992, but Rural Neighborhoods built a new labor camp, consisting of a combination of apartments and dormitories, in its place.

The organization today has multiple migrant worker housing projects across central and south Florida, including Ruskin, Okeechobee and Immokalee, as well as new sites in La Belle and Winter Haven.

“We are now probably the largest nonprofit housing organization in Florida,” said Steve Kirk, president of Rural Neighborhoods.

The organization broke ground on the Winter Haven site May 5, for construction of a 3,944-square-foot project consisting of 80 apartment units. The project is different than other projects, because it will also accommodate local low-income families.

“We have different types of communities, and this is a family community where only 40 percent are for agricultural workers,” Kirk said. “The other (units) could be for agricultural workers, too, but it’s for whoever qualifies.”

It is an effort to change with the times. Many once-rural communities are becoming increasingly suburbanized, and more residents are finding jobs outside of traditional agricultural occupations. But it’s also an effort to provide quality housing that could last decades, much longer than many of the mobile home parks many communities provide.

“It would be nice to build an 80-unit apartment just for workers, but there are other people working in rural communities, so we’ve evolved,” Kirk said. “We are building houses (to last) for 30 years, so we have to try to figure out who’s going to live there 15 years from now.”

For Rural Neighborhoods, the projects begin with an idea long before construction begins, but none of the projects can take off without the consideration of zoning and land-use regulations. And because regulations change between cities and counties, it is an important area all growers and housing providers take seriously.

“Each county is different in terms of worker housing, and you have to understand what kind of regulation climate you are in,” Kirk said. “A lot of areas have been urbanized, but counties have been going though a second look at the rules.”

Hillsborough County is one such county. Previously, growers were required to attend public zoning hearings for migrant worker housing, but area residents attended the meetings, voicing their complaints and preventing approval for many projects. The county changed its rules a few years ago to bypass public hearings and allow approval if the growers met all the requirements at the beginning, including construction in rural areas. Urban or suburban housing projects must still hold public hearings for approval.

“If they can’t meet any of the criteria, they must have a public hearing,” said Tom Hiznay, senior planner for the Hillsborough County Planning & Growth Management Department in Tampa. “If the farm worker housing project is near certain locations, you’re in the public hearing process. Areas with a higher residential density – you need a public hearing.”

Florida laws are vague on what constitutes migrant worker housing, and structures can range from apartments and dormitories to houses, duplexes and trailers. The regulations depend on how the structures are constructed, and are guided by the Florida Department of Health, which ultimately issues housing permits and conducts inspections. Structures also must meet U.S. H-2A and Housing & Urban Development regulations.

Growers must submit an application at least 30 days prior to workers occupying the housing to allow for initial inspections, as well as provide a 48-hour period to correct any issues that don’t meet health department regulations. Once the structures are approved, workers can inhabit the houses at the end of the 30-day period.

Inspections are performed by county health offices, under the jurisdiction of the state office in Tallahassee.

“We inspect twice per quarter, and the number (of inspections) depends on unit numbers,” said Israel Juarve, an environmental specialist with the Polk County Department of Health. “One house could take half an hour, while an 18-house unit could take two to three hours. One grower could have at least 20 houses, and each housing has its own permit.”

There is a new amendment under consideration by the Hillsborough County commissioners, having to do with screening around migrant worker housing projects. Current regulations require that screening be applied at the property edge if less than 200 feet lie between the migrant worker housing and adjacent residential housing. That includes housing, parking lots, playgrounds and storm water ponds.

Under the changes the amendment proposes, storm water ponds would be exempt from screening.

It is only a small change, but if it passes, it will make it easier for Hillsborough County growers to put in migrant worker housing, Hiznay said.

Hillsborough County’s growth plan states that agriculture is the preferred business in the county, Williamson said. She credited county officials for making it easier for growers to put in housing.

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