A bill that aims at providing a streamlined process for constructing farmworker housing on agricultural land is making its way through the California Senate. However, though the Coastside agricultural community struggles with a lack of affordable housing and a shrinking labor force, AB 1783 would not apply here.

Supporters of the bill say environmental concerns have made them focus their housing efforts elsewhere.

Assemblyman Robert Rivas, who introduced the bill, said it excludes development in the Coastal Zone to ensure environmentally vulnerable areas stay protected. The legislation passed the state Assembly, and the Hollister lawmaker hopes for a vote on the Senate floor in August.

Meanwhile, San Mateo County officials continue to grapple with unmet housing needs for agricultural workers. 

A 2016 assessment conducted by the county estimated a need for up to 1,140 affordable housing units for agricultural workers. That does not include repairs or replacement for any existing units that are overcrowded or too expensive. 

The report also found that many farmers and landowners would not be able to fund housing constructions or repairs. 

A lack of affordable housing has strained the labor pool; the county reports that farm employment dropped dramatically, from nearly 3,000 workers in the year 2000 to about 1,700 in 2014.

“For our agriculture on the South Coast to continue to be successful, you not only have to have the land and product and water, you have to have labor,” Supervisor Don Horsley said. “We’ve seen some of the commercial growers who have 300 or so acres won’t farm the 300 or so acres, because they don’t have anybody to actually work it.” 

In 2014, the Board of Supervisors began setting aside money to support farmworker housing. The county’s Department of Housing initiated a loan forgiveness program to help fund the construction of new farmworker housing or the repair of existing units. Seven units have been completed through the loan program, according to Ellie Dallman, a legislative aide for Horsley, and four more units have been approved for Measure K funding.

The county has collaborated with the Peninsula Open Space Trust to protect farmland on the coast. POST launched the Farmland Futures Initiative in 2015 in hopes of providing necessary infrastructure, including housing, to preserve agriculture.

In 2018, POST and the county partnered to build creation of four three-bedroom units at Blue House Farm. The Board of Supervisors provided $300,000 to fund two of the four units.

Ben Wright, POST’s farmland program manager, said the trust is working on three more projects totaling 11 housing units and 34 bedrooms. 

Data from the 2016 county reporting on housing needs estimated that 468 residents currently live in units designed for agricultural workers, about a quarter of the total farmworkers in the county.

Horsley said he hopes to find a large tract of publicly owned property on which to build affordable housing.

“Though we’ve never really been able to find anything yet, that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop looking,” he said. 

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