The need for farmworker housing and 555 Kelly Avenue in the San Francisco Chronicle

Posted on: January 23, 2024

A year after Half Moon Bay mass shooting, farmworkers still waiting for better housing

Amairani Cortes walks to the gate at California Terra Garden in Half Moon Bay on Jan. 26, 2023, days after the mass shooting that left seven farmworkers dead. Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

Amid preparations by the tight-knit community in Half Moon Bay to commemorate the one-year anniversary Tuesday of the mass shooting that left seven farmworkers dead, painful memories have been flooding back to Juan Flores-Lopez.

He worked at California Terra Garden, the first of two farms where police said a disgruntled fellow employee opened fire, killing four. “Unfortunately, I saw everything,” Flores-Lopez said.

He said his family lived with two of the victims and had created a special bond with them. “It’s very sad because we’re reliving it, but we’ve also been remembering the beautiful relationship we had with them,” Flores-Lopez said.

On top of mourning the victims of the worst mass shooting in San Mateo County history, Flores-Lopez is also worried about finding affordable and permanent housing for his family.

Flores-Lopez and several dozen other workers living at California Terra Garden and Concord Farms, where the other three victims were killed, were rushed into Airbnbs and then into temporary rental units after the killings highlighted their poor living conditions and renewed calls for more farmworker housing. But the one-year arrangement ends soon.

“I worry for my family. We need a place to live,” said Flores-Lopez, who said he returned to work at California Terra Garden out of necessity.

In the year since the shooting, San Mateo County officials have worked to obtain funding for farmworker housing while providing those displaced with basic needs with help from local nonprofits. In total, three housing developments in Half Moon Bay are in the planning stages, but it could take another one to four years until they’re move-in ready.

That, according to farmworker advocates, highlights the slow pace of progress in the ongoing fight for farmworker rights and housing, and underscores the deplorable conditions agricultural workers have faced for years. Many farmworkers in California continue to face “horrific mistreatment, abusive working conditions and exploitative employers” despite the national attention on the Half Moon Bay shootings, said Antonio De Loera-Brust, director of communications for the United Farm Workers union.

“It should not take a massacre for California to confront the grim reality faced by the workers who put food on all our tables,” he said.

Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, founder of Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, a Half Moon Bay nonprofit that provides resources to farmworkers, said it is “sad that it took this tragedy to make change” in the circumstances that advocates have long known about and fought against.

“It’s not just here in Half Moon Bay, it’s in Pescadero, it’s in Watsonville, all up and down California,” Hernandez-Arriaga said. “There needs to be better living conditions, more humane conditions. Why is that in 2024?”

A cluster of mobile homes is shown Jan. 26, 2023, at California Terra Garden, days after a deadly rampage there and at another mushroom farm in Half Moon Bay left seven people dead. Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

County efforts for farmworkers

Under pressure in the intense national spotlight after the shootings revealed the squalid living conditions of area farmworkers, county officials took several steps to address problems, according to Supervisor Ray Mueller, whose district includes Half Moon Bay.

“This event was a tragedy but we’re working as hard as we can, as fast as we can, to improve conditions,” Mueller said, adding that he acknowledges it may not be fast enough for people in a vulnerable environment.

The county created a task force to improve conditions on farms, made up of staffers from the county’s Planning and Building Department, Environmental Health Department and Department of Agriculture/Weights and Measures, as well as the County Attorney and District Attorney’s offices.

As of this month, the task force has evaluated about 75 percent of approximately 110 agricultural properties on its list, according to Cassandra Matter, a legislative policy aide and communications director for Mueller. Of that 75 percent, Matter said 20 percent have required corrective action, from adding smoke detectors to maintaining waste disposal systems.

In a wealthy county that has struggled to devise a plan that meets state-mandated goals to build new affordable housing, officials issued an emergency coastal development permit to speed up the process of a housing development. Supervisors also recently voted to buy a 50-acre property to build another housing development for agricultural workers and a co-op center for agricultural product distribution “to support the industry” and potentially use the greenhouses on-site to teach young farmers how to grow, Mueller said.

VMWP’s current rendering of affordable farmworker housing at 555 Kelly Ave in Half Moon Bay, California.

The three developments still in the planning stages are at 880 Stone Pine, 555 Kelly Ave. and a parcel of land located near Cabrillo Highway and Miramontes Point Road that was formerly the site of Bay City Flowers.

The Stone Pine project will have 47 affordable units — 28 of which will be set aside for the families displaced by the Half Moon Bay mass shootings. The project is expected to cost $20 million and be ready for families to move in January 2025, county officials said. The county plans to continue meeting with farmworkers about the status of the project this year. Qualifications have not been decided, but will be handled through nonprofit stakeholders, Mueller said.

Developers of 555 Kelly Ave. in downtown Half Moon Bay are still in the early stages of a plan to build 40 units there for senior farmworkers, said Hernandez-Arriaga of ALAS, which is working with nonprofit developer Mercy Housing on the project. That development is expected to take about four years to be completed, Hernandez-Arriaga said.

At the third location, the former Bay City Flowers site, the county said the land will be used to build housing for agricultural workers and the co-op center. At least 100 units could be built there, Mueller said, though an exact number hasn’t been determined yet.

Flores-Lopez said he’s excited about the chance to move into one of the three developments, but he needs housing now. He said he’s searching for housing and waiting to hear from county officials about the status of one project that could potentially provide a place for his family — including his wife, two daughters and two stepchildren — to live.

After the shooting, the county placed farmworkers and their families into Airbnbs for 30 days and then rental units for 12 months, Mueller said. The Half Moon Bay City Council on Jan. 16 approved using up to $300,000 to match donations from philanthropic foundations for continued emergency housing for farmworkers displaced by the mass shooting.

California Terra Garden, where suspect Chunli Zhao worked and was the site of the first shooting, said that it would build new living quarters after its owners were criticized for housing workers in squalid conditions without permits.

No other details about the company’s plan were announced. It was unclear how many workers lived in the second site of the massacre, Concord Farms. Officials at both farms did not respond to requests for comment.

Zhao, who investigators said went on the deadly rampage after getting in a dispute with his supervisor about a $100 forklift repair bill, pleaded not guilty to a long list of felonies that could lead to the death penalty. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 18, according to San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe.

Status of investigations into farms

 

…Read full article in San Francisco Chronicle.

 

More help needed, advocates say

Local advocates praised local politicians such as Mueller for “really listening” to farmworkers and advocating for them, said Hernandez-Arriaga.

While advocates say more housing is a good start in improving the lives of farmworkers, some said more needs to be done to prevent abusive working conditions and low wages. Agricultural workers, many of whom lack adequate access to health care, also need mental health support, they said.

“Gun violence is one element but I think the bigger issue here is mental health,” said Judith Guerrero, executive director of Coastside Hope, one of the agencies providing social services to the farmworkers in the aftermath of the shootings.

On Saturday, just three days before the first anniversary of the mass shootings, an 18-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of shooting and injuring a man at a farmworker housing community in Half Moon Bay. Both lived there, but there is no evidence that suggests either was a farmworker, said San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Javier Acosta.

Although authorities said it was an isolated incident, the shooting was especially traumatic for the farmworker community because a storm had knocked out power and cell service, and they lacked timely information about what was happening, said Sandra Sencion, a community program coordinator at ALAS.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle
By Jessica Flores; Reach Jessica Flores: jessica.flores@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @jesssmflores

Posted in: News


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