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Housing First

news analysis
Farm Worker Housing in California
Enduring Rough Conditions, Fighting for Change

Listen Part I: Parking Lots and Crowded Rooms

Listen Part II: When Farm Workers Retire

Mattresses in parking lot in Mecca, Calif.

A migrant worker encampment in an empty parking lot in downtown Mecca, Calif.

Photo: Ina Jaffe, NPR News

Every spring, the tiny town of Mecca, Calif., is overwhelmed by thousands of workers who come here for the table grape harvest. But the best lodging that many can find is the rutted dirt parking lot across from Leon's Market, one of the handful of stores in the center of town. The lucky ones sleep in cars -- others sleep on the ground on mattresses made of flattened cardboard boxes.



Working the vineyards

Harvesting grapes at a Bagdasarian vineyard in California's Coachella Valley.

Photo: Ina Jaffe, NPR News

Bozik

Michael Bozik, president of Richard Bagdasarian, Inc., at one of his vineyards.

Photo: Ina Jaffe, NPR News

The Romero brothers

The Romero brothers in front of the porch to their apartment at Las Mananitas, an affordable apartment complex developed for farm workers. From left to right: Yasir, Edgar and Noe.

Photo: Ina Jaffe, NPR News

"Maria Concepcion Rodriguez, 92, had been living in a tiny trailer. When Desert Gardens opened in 1998, she moved in on the very first day. She quickly summons up her limited English to express how she feels about her cozy one-bedroom apartment: "Every day I am happy all the time," she says."



Maria

Maria Concepcion Rodriguez, 92 in her apartment at Desert Gardens, built to house retired farm workers. Over her shoulder at left is a photo of Hillary Clinton -- a gift she got from the White House after meeting the First Lady, who she met by chance while on a seniors' excursion to San Diego.

Photo: Ina Jaffe, NPR News

June 10-11, 2003 -- If you've bought grapes recently, chances are they were grown in Southern California's Coachella Valley, an incredibly fertile area carved out of the desert east of Palm Springs. But despite the abundance, most of the men and women who pick those grapes have no decent place to live while they work the harvest.

As part of NPR's Housing First series, NPR's Ina Jaffe reports on the decline of housing for migrant workers, and one community's attempt to address the shortage.


Every spring, the tiny town of Mecca, Calif., is overwhelmed by thousands of workers who come here for the table grape harvest. But the best lodging that many can find is the rutted dirt parking lot across from Leon's Market, one of the handful of stores in the center of town. The lucky ones sleep in cars -- others sleep on the ground on mattresses made of flattened cardboard boxes.

This scene has become such a fixture of the grape harvest that the county now puts portable toilets and showers around Leon's parking lot. Local residents sometimes make extra cash renting out mattresses in tool sheds or spots in the shade.

By dawn, the parking lot is empty, and workers are filling the fields. Michael Bozik, owner of the Richard Bagdasarian Inc. vineyards, hires about 1,200 hundred workers during the harvest. Like almost all the growers in California, he once provided free housing for his seasonal workers right on the ranch. And like almost all the growers, he found the liability just got to be too much. "We had to walk away from it," he says.

Conditions in Mecca are among the worst in the state, and advocates for the migrant workers say vineyard owners don't care, just as long as the workers show up. So 20 years ago, community leaders formed the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition to tackle the problem. In two decades, the coalition has developed 2,500 units of affordable housing, most of it for farm workers and their families. They've built one apartment complex -- named Las Mananitas -- specifically for migrant workers.

The coalition, like other non-profit housing organizations throughout the state, finances projects with a patchwork of local, state and federal money, bank loans and grants. They would like to develop more housing, but money is tight. "At present, the less fortunate have Leon's parking lot," Jaffe says.

Retirement is another issue -- it's not easy to save for a comfortable retirement with an annual income under $15,000, and most farm workers make less than that.

But now, at least a few seniors who've spent their working lives in the fields have a comfortable and affordable new community of their own -- Desert Gardens, one of the first retirement complexes designed specifically for retired farm workers.

"The red tile roofs and beige stucco make the place look like an upscale condo development, not subsidized housing for some of the poorest people in America," Jaffe says.

John Mealey, the head of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition which developed Desert Gardens, says the coalition recently began to build smaller apartments for retirement-age farm workers, and appeal was immediate.

Maria Conception Rodriguez, 92, had been living in a tiny trailer. When Desert Gardens opened in 1998, she moved in on the very first day. She quickly summons up her limited English to express how she feels about her cozy one-bedroom apartment: "Every day I am happy all the time," she says.

Maria moved her family from the Mexican border town of Mexicali to California when she was in her mid-50s, because farm work paid twice as much as her old job as a seamstress. She finally left the fields and retired in 1986, at age 74.

Every year about 10 percent of farm workers leave agriculture. But according to the United Farm Workers of America, most of the people who are eligible for pensions never apply for them. It's often assumed that retired farm workers simply move in with their grown children, as is common in many Latino families.

But some don't have that option. And some, like Maria, would rather live on their own. It's rare, though, to find high-quality housing that's also affordable for seniors who spent their working lives in the fields. There's a waiting list to get into Desert Gardens. The wait can be as long as four years.


Other Resources

Coachella Valley Housing Coalition

United Farm Workers of America

U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Rural Housing Service

California Housing Law Project, advocates for affordable housing

National Farm Workers Service Center, Inc. Housing and Economic Development Fund




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