While the South County is fighting over vacation rentals, the city of Santa Maria is trying to get their arms around a federal farmworker housing program known as H2A. This, despite the fact that the program actually solves many more problems than it creates. Hopefully, the Santa Maria City Council will take a fresh look at the opportunities presented by H2A housing versus the litany of perceived fears and relatively minor impacts associated with the same. One aspect of the controversy has to do with the ability of farmworkers to be housed in residential neighborhoods, or in converted motels and hotels.
COLAB believes there is an opportunity here to create new opportunities that will address the needs of farmers, farmworkers, and residential neighborhoods. Specifically, we are requesting that the City Council open up other zone districts, in addition to residential, for the purpose of H2A housing, including retail, commercial and industrial. This is not without precedent.
Years ago, Santa Maria allowed the county Social Services department to take over the old Montgomery Ward store. The city did this despite losing associated sales tax revenue as a result of the conversion. They also allowed the Vandenberg Inn to become converted to senior housing, losing bed tax dollars in the process. Finally, like many other cities across America, Santa Maria is facing the blight of abandoned brick-and-mortal retail as the internet economy obliterates historic retail, not to mention numerous old warehouse buildings scattered throughout the town.
We believe it may be time to move on from the old paradigm of limited uses in retail and other zone districts by allowing mixed uses throughout the city because the worst possible scenario are buildings allowed to deteriorate as they sit abandoned. Allowing these facilities to be converted to H2A housing would put them to good use. The added attraction is that since the farmworkers are gone during the day, there will be no impacts or disruptions to the normative daily use of the surrounding businesses.
With respect to allowing H2A housing to continue in all residential zone districts, we believe the aforementioned policy consideration will take the pressure off of these residential areas due to the large number of workers who could be housed in these larger buildings. Regardless, we do believe that residential homes should also be continued to be available for at least the next five years in order to give the agricultural community the opportunity to transition. In the meantime, the City Council can create rules for the continued use of residential zoned properties including complaint procedures and clear cut guidelines that will prevent conflict.
A legacy problem in Santa Maria arises from too many people, with too many cars, packed into single-family homes and small apartments. H2A solves this problem, in part, by eliminating the cars and actually limiting the number of people per residence by way of ordinances that otherwise do not apply to domestic far workers, i.e., non-H2A workers and their families. The latter of which have put a strain on schools, social services, medical care facilities and other resources in the community. H2A solves this problem in that the H2A workers are single and completely cared for by the employer, thereby eliminating these legacy impacts.
Finally, the H2A program won’t last forever. With the cooperation of the city, any farmworker housing that is built could eventually be converted to senior housing, or to other similar needs, if and when a revised federal guest worker program abates the requirement that the farmers provide housing for their workers. There is a desperate need for senior housing, just as there is a desperate need for farmworker housing today.