Half Moon Bay needs more homes for farmworkers. Experts blame an ‘anti-housing constituency’

Posted on: January 30, 2023

Source: San Francisco Chronicle; Author: J. K. Dineen

The 9,000-square-foot lot at 555 Kelly St. in Half Moon Bay is not much to look at. On the edge of downtown, across from a Boys & Girls Club, it features a small house and a parking lot shaded by a couple of ficus trees.

Yet, for the 1,700 farmworkers who toil in the fields and greenhouses along the San Mateo coast, the property offers a faint glimmer of hope. That’s because nonprofit developer Mercy Housing is in the early stages of a plan to build 40 units of housing there for senior farmworkers.

“So many of the seniors are still out working in the fields,” said Tim Dunn, project manager for Mercy Housing. “What we mostly hear from residents is, ‘What is taking so long? We need the housing now.’”

The deadly shooting of seven agricultural workers in Half Moon Bay last week brought national attention to an issue that San Mateo County planners have been grappling with for decades: the scarcity of housing for the workers who farm the crops — mushrooms and Brussels sprouts, artichokes and pumpkins — that pump about $150 million into the local economy.

At a news conference on the day after the shooting, Gov. Gavin Newsom and other public officials talked about some of the deplorable housing environments for many of the farmworkers, saying that they were “living in shipping containers, making $9 an hour.”

Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, founder and executive director of the nonprofit ALAS, or Ayudando Latinos A Soñar (Helping Latinos Dream), which serves farmworkers in San Mateo County, said the conditions were well known to her staff. Eight families totaling 27 people lived on the property and paid $300 a month.

“They had Porta Pottis for restrooms. They lived in trailers that were similar to camper style,” Hernandez-Arriaga said. “It was muddy, rodents. Having to cook outside.”

The company that owns the farm disagreed, saying the governor’s comments were inaccurate and the homes “are all equipped with kitchens, bathrooms and shower facilities in addition to standard living amenities.”

While the Bay Area suffers from a disconnect between wages earned by essential workers and the stratospheric cost of housing, perhaps nowhere is that dichotomy more pronounced than the coast of San Mateo County. There, commuters to Silicon Valley and San Francisco buy homes for $1.9 million or rent for $2,000 a month while farmworkers make $25,000 a year.

Frozen out of the housing market, field workers with families have few choices. A 2017 report on housing San Mateo farmworkers found that 70% live on the properties they farm, often enduring makeshift, overcrowded conditions. Many of the units are trailers or recreation vehicles “designed for seasonal use, not year-round occupancy.”

The report concluded that there is an unmet need for 1,020 to 1,140 housing units.

Currently there are two significant, subsidized developments in Half Moon Bay for farmworkers: Moon Ridge has 160 units, and Main Street Park has 64 units, both owned by the nonprofit Mid-Pen.

Landing a unit in one of these developments is like winning the lottery. The apartments at Moon Ridge stretch along a dead-end road across the street from a ranch, just outside city limits. Many of the one- and two-story townhomes overlook community gardens where the farmworkers grow produce for their families. One resident, Vicky Badajos, said at least one family member has to work on a farm to live there. She said a lot of the families living on the farms are on waiting lists to get into Moon Ridge.

“It takes a really long time,” she said. “I know families on the list for years and they don’t get in.”

The shooting in Half Moon Bay comes as the city is scrambling to finish its “housing element,” the state-mandated plan that dictates how much housing must be produced between this year and 2031. According to the state, Half Moon Bay must produce 480 units, 213 of which must be affordable to low- and moderate-income households. The city currently has 424 deed-restricted affordable units.

But Half Moon Bay has restrictions that make development even more challenging than in other California cities. In 1999, in an effort to control population, voters passed Measure D, which restricts development to 1% of the current housing stock, or 1.5% if the development is downtown.

Under the initiative, the City Council doles out “Measure D certificates” that dictate where units can go. For 2021, for example, it provided “up to 66 Measure D certificates” which represented 22 downtown units, 22 accessory dwelling units and 22 units outside of downtown.

Currently, in addition to Kelly Street, Half Moon Bay is looking into a potential affordable project at Stone Pine that could accommodate 100 to 120 units. There is no timeline for that development.

“Only a limited number of units can be added every year,” said Mike Noce, Half Moon Bay’s housing coordinator. “The city is doing as much as we can on the affordable housing front, but we do have to work within some pretty serious constraints.”

In addition to Measure D’s limits, anything built in Half Moon Bay has to be approved by the California Coastal Commission.

Land use attorney Jennifer Hernandez, who has worked on projects up and down the coast, said Half Moon Bay is one of the most difficult places to build.

“Not much happens, I have to tell you,” she said. “The Coastal Commission process happens after the county approval process. It’s not at all unusual for even a single-family home renovation to take two or three years to process. There is a significant anti-growth, anti-housing constituency.”

While there is widespread community support for 555 Kelly, the process will probably take two years because the site has to be rezoned to allow for four stories and wait in line for state funding. Construction is unlikely to start before 2025.

Noce said San Mateo County has programs to help fund new modular homes on farm properties. The county would handle 80% of the costs, while the landowner would put up 20%. He said at least one property owner is planning on taking advantage of the program and is looking into a seven-unit development that would consist of all three-bedroom units.

“The city is actively working with property owners to create modern housing on some of the farms,” Noce said.

Unlike 555 Kelly St., which requires a rezoning and multiple approvals, the prefab housing could “happen very quickly,” he said.

Matt Franklin, president of Mid-Pen, which owns Moon Ridge, said he hoped the attention on the poor living conditions faced by field workers would push leaders to commit to more housing. He said Mid-Pen is working on a potential farmworker housing site in Moss Beach, and that the group will be interested in rebuilding some of the substandard housing on the farms, something it has done in Santa Cruz County.

“The political will of the leadership of the City Council for affordable housing is very strong right now,” he said. “They embrace it.”

Read the full article here.

Posted in: News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Van Meter Williams Pollack LLP