Oct 26, 2010
Washington state builds more worker housing

Creating enough farm worker housing is an issue for every agricultural region in the country. But Washington state, which produces 300 commercial crops valued at more than $6.4 billion, has one of the most diversified crop bases and one of the largest and most mobile migrant work forces in the country. This makes the issue of farm worker housing an especially big challenge.

There are more than 100,000 agricultural workers in Washington, about one-third of whom are migrant workers, according to the Washington State Employment Security Department. In 1999, recognizing the need for more farm worker housing, Washington dedicated $8 million to creating new housing every two years. In 2007, the state increased this amount to $14 million every two years and added a $4 million infrastructure loan program for growers who wanted to build on-farm housing.

Over the years, the state has made slow but steady progress in creating more housing. Five years ago, Washington only had 6,800 beds for farm workers. Today, there are about 11,000 beds, according to Marty Miller, the executive director of the Washington Office of Rural and Farm Worker Housing.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, but we still have a long way to go,” Miller said. “Our estimate is that we need another 30,000 beds.”

Over the past 10 years, the state has taken a three-pronged approach to creating more housing. This has included a state-funded seasonal farm worker housing complex, a “rent-a-tent” program and the government subsidized loan program for growers.

As part of the state program, the Washington Growers League (WGL) opened Sage Bluff in Malaga, a 41-cabin complex. Each cabin houses up to six people and comes with heating and air conditioning, a small refrigerator and personal lockers for each inhabitant. The complex includes two communal kitchens, seven bathrooms with showers and two laundry facilities.

The Sage Bluff project opened in two phases. The first phase was finished in June 2009, in time for the cherry picking season.

“We filled to capacity within the first three days of opening and had to turn away quite a few people,” Miller said.

The second phase, which opened this June, also filled quickly to capacity.

The facility usually fills up with workers from June through August, during peak cherry picking season. Workers can lease the beds on a nightly or weekly basis, or growers can block a group of rooms for several months at a time.

“A grower can come to WGL and lease, say, like 15 beds for their workers for three months. This works out well, because they know they have a spot for all 15 employees and they don’t have to worry about maintenance or management,” Miller said.

While this type of housing has proved to be a huge success, growers in more distant areas of the state still need to house their workers, Miller said. So, in 2000, the WGL started a “rent-a-tent” program, designed specifically for cherry workers.

WGL rents out 14-foot by 24-foot tents to growers and charges $12 a night, said Jesse Lane, housing program manager for WGL. The tents, which come with folding cots, house up to seven workers.

“These tents are kind of like hunting tents. They have aluminum frames, very heavy vinyl zippered doors, screened doors and mini refrigerators for convenience,” Lane said.
The cost of the tent includes delivery, set up and removal, Lane said.

“The rent-a-tent program is great because we have such a huge influx of people during cherry picking season, and for such a short period of time,” Lane said. “It just didn’t make a lot of sense for growers to spend the money to build housing that was just going to sit there for 11 months of the year empty.”

Growers who rent tents are responsible for providing cooking, bathing and restroom facilities, as well as a concrete pad for each tent.

John Senseney, a Wenatchee cherry farmer, has been participating in the program since 2000.

“It’s a really good program and has helped us out a lot with the labor force,” Senseney said. “Before this, we used to have a lot of turnover and we wouldn’t get the same people every year. But the tents make a big difference because people like having a place to stay.”

Although Senseney has a core group of workers who live in more permanent housing on the farm, finding a place to stay for up to 63 seasonal workers at a time during picking season was always a challenge.

“Workers would just find a place wherever they could,” Senseney said. “It really helps to have the workers stay here on the property rather than being spread out all across the county, because it makes them more likely to come to work in the morning. It also makes it easier to communicate with them. If I need to talk to them late in the afternoon, all I have to do is walk over to the camp.”

The other good thing about the rent-a-tent program is that growers are eligible to take out government subsidized loans to build kitchen and bathroom facilities for the workers.

The way the infrastructure loans work is that the government pays for everything underground – the plumbing, sewage and electrical systems. Growers are responsible for paying to build the actual kitchen and bathroom facilities. After they build these structures and workers use them for a few years, the infrastructure loans become forgivable.

“This has been a really positive thing,” Senseney said. “The loans were really affordable and what made this whole thing possible.”

One reason the infrastructure loan program has worked so well is that, 10 years ago, the government standardized regulations for farm worker housing, which has made it easier for growers to justify spending money on permanent structures. These standards have worked out well because they give growers peace of mind in knowing that the government isn’t going to make any sudden changes to the regulations.

“When they finally came up with these regulations, it really made a difference because we knew that we were going to be investing in camps without worrying that a couple of years down the road the standards might change and that our camps wouldn’t be any good any more,” Senseney said. “Now, we know that we can make these investments and that they’re still going to have value in the future.”

By Lisa Lieberman, Western Correspondent


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