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Encinitas Sued Over Low-Cost Housing : Complaint Accuses City of Ignoring Needs of Migrant Workers

Times Staff Writer

An advocacy group representing migrant farm workers sued the city of Encinitas Thursday, claiming that the city’s general plan fails to meet state housing goals for the indigent, instead maintaining a policy of “ridding itself of its poor and migrant workers.”

“For migrant farm workers in Encinitas, the message for too long has been, ‘Get out of town by dusk,’ ” said Claudia Smith, regional counsel for the nonprofit California Rural Legal Assistance.

The suit was filed in Vista Superior Court on behalf of six migrant workers in Encinitas, including three homeless day laborers driven from several migrant encampments, one situated on a former city dump.

The three others are permanent employees of an Encinitas nursery who say they have not been able to find housing they can afford.

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The complaint alleges that the city’s zoning, land-use and housing policies are “neither an honest nor reasonable plan in respect to providing decent and affordable housing to the hundreds and perhaps thousands of homeless workers, much less the stable year-round population of workers who live in badly overcrowded and substandard conditions.”

Likened to Sabotage

Smith called the city’s activities akin to sabotage.

“Encinitas doesn’t even want to admit that it has all these migrant workers living and working within its boundaries,” Smith said. “And we’re not just talking about day laborers lining up on the curb for work each day.

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“The city hasn’t even addressed the needs of farm workers who work year-round in nurseries in the area in housing that is crumbling and overcrowded.”

Pam Slater, deputy mayor of Encinitas, called the suit and Smith’s comments inflammatory.

“She has that type of style,” Slater said of Smith. “What’s not being taken into account is that our city is only 2 years old. Our general plan has only been in effect for two months.”

Many of the claims contained in the suit simply don’t apply to Encinitas, Slater said. “We just don’t have that many itinerant workers here. We do have some long-term workers with their green cards or what have you.

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‘Passing Through’

“But many of the workers we have in Encinitas are people who are passing through, they’re not staying.”

City Manager Warren Shafer said he had received a copy of the suit late Thursday but had not read it.

“Obviously, we don’t agree with their position,” he said. “The city had its housing element submitted to the state for review before it was submitted to the council. We feel the housing element meets the requirements of state law.”

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“We’ve met with them, trying to explain our side of things. Apparently, we didn’t get our point across.”

The suit highlights the nagging problem of immigrant-labor housing in northern San Diego County, where thousands of field hands and other laborers reside in dozens of makeshift camps built amid the brush and chaparral, often alongside luxurious homes and new upper-middle-class developments.

Evacuation Ordered

Earlier this year, San Diego county health officials ordered the evacuation of one of the largest and best-known camps, known as Valle Verde, or Green Valley, which housed about 200 residents and featured an open-air restaurant. Many residents simply relocated to other camps. Private landowners periodically level the encampments, forcing the workers to find new sites in less-accessible areas.

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But a permanent solution to the problem has eluded local lawmakers and growers, who say they have limited funds to underwrite low-income housing for the migrants.

In its examination of the housing and land-use elements of several North County cities, the legal-assistance group found Encinitas’ to be the worst.

“While other cities don’t lift a finger to respond to the needs of the homeless, Encinitas goes even further and erects barriers for any progress in this regard,” Smith said.

“It has developed a policy of ridding itself of its poor and migrant workers.”

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Permits Freed

On Wednesday night, the Encinitas City Council voted to release 74 building permits that had been set aside to meet its “fair share” of affordable housing.

With the release of the units, the permits may be granted for market-priced homes, rather than low-income housing.

Shafer said the 74 permits will be reallocated to low-income units in a later year.

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Encinitas’ housing policy has been to opt for low-density zoning, preferring to build single-family detached homes.

“The low density doesn’t allow for the rights to develop multifamily dwellings for poor people,” Smith said. “It can be done. It’s being done in places like Palm Springs and Palm Desert, cities with similar land values.”

“But Encinitas hasn’t even looked seriously at the application for such funding. So far, it’s been all talk. They really don’t seem to want to move in that direction.”

Disagreement Voiced

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Slater disagreed. “It’s a fallacy that when you have a high-density area you automatically have low-income housing priorities for the poor,” she said. “Look at Manhattan or Tokyo. It’s not working there either.

“I mean, we’re working on this problem. But, in two months, we just haven’t had much time.”

In the meantime, North San Diego County generally is suffering from a low-income housing crisis, the lawsuit claims.

“The problem of finding decent shelter is particularly acute for farm workers employed by growers and nursery owners, and for day laborers used by local contractors, landscapers, homeowners and renters,” the lawsuit says.

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Those not able to afford skyrocketing rents are forced to live in “spider holes” dug into sides of ravines or in shacks made of sticks, cardboard boxes and plastic bags, held together with twine, according to the suit.

Move Elsewhere

Driven from their encampments by routine sweeps, the workers move on to other undeveloped sites. The fortunate ones, mostly year-round employees of about 40 nurseries situated in Encinitas, must settle for crowded and substandard rental units, the suit maintains.

Gustavo Terrazas, one of the workers named in the suit, lives with his family of three in a 400-square-foot house with crumbling plaster and holes in the ceiling. Terrazas has worked in an Encinitas nursery for the 16 years, earning a gross salary of about $1,200 a month, according to the suit.

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Thursday’s lawsuit was intended as a message to other North County cities to begin to develop long-range plans to meet state housing goals for the poor, Smith said.

“The first step to reaching that goal is developing a housing plan, or element. If you don’t have the right zoning laws, you don’t provide developers with the incentive to build low-income housing. It’s just not going to happen.”

Comment Cited

An example of Encinitas’s attitude towards local migrant workers, Smith said, is the comment by City Councilwoman Marjorie Gaines, who she said recently suggested to the council “that all migrants be bused back to TJ.”

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Gaines denied making the statement.

“I don’t think those were my exact words,” she said. “I do feel that people who cross the border illegally should be returned to their homes, and not at the expense of the U. S. government.”

Gaines said many illegal migrant workers are attracted to Encinitas because there are several organizations in the city that offer them food and clothing.

“The definition of migrant needs to be made clear-cut,” she said. “When you talk about migrants, you first have to establish whether they’re here legally or illegally.”

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Smith said the city is kidding itself in assuming that someone who doesn’t speak the language is in the country illegally.

‘80% . . . Documented’

“Encinitas has always hoped it could dismiss its homeless problem as an undocumented problem. But as a Border Patrol agent who recently addressed the council said, more than 80% of those workers are documented,” she said.

“They’re people in the process of working on their full citizenship, who have families that will follow them. Encinitas has gone out of its way to sabotage that dream, to see that it will never happen.”

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Gaines said most of the migrant workers in the area are undocumented.

“We hired a transient issues coordinator last year, and she went out to those encampments to talk to those people in their own language to ask if they had their papers,” she said.

“Well, 95% said they didn’t. And why would they lie to her?”

Times staff writer Patrick McDonnell contributed to this report.

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