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Cheap food sows the seeds of shoddy housing for farmworkers

We discuss health policies ad infinitum, while leaving housing issues to a few policy wonks

I have spent the majority of my professional life trying to keep people in substandard housing. Every housing advocate will understand why: California does not have enough affordable housing, and bad housing is better than no housing. When we improve blighted housing, it is usually at the expense of low-income occupants, who cannot afford to pay the higher rent.

Our society underestimates the importance of having a decent place to live. We spend enormous intellectual and financial resources on health insurance while ignoring the clear evidence that adequate shelter, clean water and sanitary sewage systems are major health issues. We discuss health policies ad infinitum, wringing our hands at our many failures, while leaving housing issues to a few policy wonks and developers, who struggle to create new units with little support.

The Legislative Analyst's Office estimated recently that California would have to build as many as 100,000 additional units annually — in addition to the 140,000 or so units that the state is already planning to build each year — to mitigate problems with housing affordability.

The housing shortage is especially bad among farmworkers. This is not a surprise. Agricultural workers are at the bottom of the food chain: They perform difficult manual labor under brutal conditions, for low wages. Those low wages are a major factor in keeping our food prices as low as possible, and our low food prices are a major factor in consigning agricultural workers to some of the worst housing conditions in the country.

California is by far the largest food producer in the United States, and its agricultural landscape is dotted with mobile home parks occupied by the men and women who pick our fruits and vegetables.

I teach at the UC Irvine School of Law's Community and Economic Development Clinic, which currently represents a group of farmworkers living in a 40-trailer park. It's right near the Coachella music festival, though festival attendees are unlikely to know it exists. (The park isn't exactly a tourist attraction.)

The park is unpermitted and the trailers are old. In many cases, they are falling apart. That the trailers are still standing at all is a remarkable testament to the ingenuity and perseverance of the residents, who work long days in temperatures that can reach 120 degrees, and come home to do whatever is necessary to maintain their shelter.

Because the park's sewage system is inadequate, it is difficult to wash clothing without sewage overflows. Because the electrical system is inadequate, residents do not know when the system will fail and leave them without air conditioning.

Last summer, one of our clients became ill when the outside temperature reached 109. A paramedic later determined it was 115 inside her home. She would not go to the hospital because she did not have medical insurance.

In 2011, when the park's owners issued a closure notice and threatened to evict all the tenants, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of the residents.

When we asked our clients what they wanted, they said we needed to make sure that the park stayed open and that they could continue to live there. The park is close to the fields where they work, they have nowhere else to go, and they are a community. They wanted to be able to use their washing machines and have dependable electricity so the air conditioners would work, even on the hottest days. It would be nice if the sewage did not overflow. They did not ask for new units or for subsidized rents. They want to be able to continue to work, to earn enough to pay for what they use, to send their children to school, and for their children to be healthy.

Recently, we reached an unusual legal settlement under which the residents can either buy the park or select a nonprofit willing to buy the park on their behalf. The price was kept relatively low to account for the costs necessary to bring the park up to code.

We have a long way to go to bring this park to a reasonable standard, with access to decent water, sewage and electric service, not to mention a small playground and new units. It has taken four years of litigation to get to this point, but finally we have a real chance to bring living conditions up to an acceptable condition.

Even if we succeed, we will have done little to resolve an enormous housing shortage. Estimates of the number of farmworkers in California range from 400,000 to more than 1 million, and substandard housing for them is the norm, not the exception. California's climate is ideal for manufactured housing, and we have the resources to create hundreds of decent mobile home parks.

We all benefit from our farmworkers' labor. A decent place to live seems little to give in return.

Robert Solomon is a clinical professor of law at the UC Irvine School of Law.

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