A critical report released last week details the lack of resources and systemic challenges that present a barrier to economic growth on San Mateo County’s South Coast. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation report notes the region has been largely excluded from the rest of the county’s overall affluence.

The report, written by independent reporter Julia Scott, details a declining agricultural economy, shortage of affordable housing, lack of health care, an underfunded public school system, limited childcare and public transportation, and inadequate infrastructure as obstacles to prosperity in the region, which is one of the most rural and isolated in the Bay Area.

Those problems are related, according to the report. In 2015, the county’s overall agricultural production value dropped $20 million, its biggest loss on record. That leads to a vicious cycle for both farmers and workers: farms are unable to expand production without more workers, but workers aren’t likely to move to the region without available affordable housing. And “a chronic lack of infrastructure, combined with being in a flood zone, stands in the way of building more housing and makes it hard to justify better transportation, service improvements and an enriched education for local youth,” the report reads.

For locals, the report’s findings are nothing new, but they serve as a sobering indication of the region’s challenges.

The report “allows us to see how very many needs we as residents in the four unincorporated towns of the South Coast live with daily. The needs are daunting in their enormity,” wrote Pescadero resident and Pescadero Municipal Advisory Council member Carolyn Shade in an email to the Review. She emphasized that she was writing as a private citizen and not on behalf of PMAC. “It is embarrassing and infuriating.”

She added, however, that it was necessary to see the issues in a cohesive fact-filled report.

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation is the largest community foundation in the world, having awarded more than $4.3 billion in grants over the past decade. Of those donations, $2.3 billion has gone to charities in the Bay Area.

In 2015, several SVCF board members visited the South Coast while considering making a $40,000 grant to San Mateo County for a farm labor housing needs assessment. Many of the board members were surprised by the living and work conditions they observed, according to the foundation’s chief community impact officer Erica Wood. Wood oversaw the production of the report.

“If they were unaware of the issues, chances are that other people are unaware of the issues,” she said. “That’s what compelled us to put this report together.”

The report focuses largely on the needs of farm and nursery workers and their families, whose median household income is $26,000, compared with $110,000 countywide. For those residents, who compose a sizable portion of the region’s population, the report lists acute problems: cramped and leaking housing that strains their budgets, inconsistent county-provided health coverage that dries up when their monthly earnings exceed the federal poverty income level, a lack of specialty health care for labor-related injuries and orthopedic issues, and a lack of licensed care for the young children of farmworkers.

Any lasting solutions would require cooperation at the local, county, state and federal level, the report states. Some agencies have already begun implementing solutions to the problems listed, and the report calls for integrating those responses.

At the local level, residents should develop a vision for the changes they hope to see and the response they want from the county, the report recommends.  

Local representatives should advocate for state funding to offset La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District’s loss of property tax revenue. State legislators should recommit to funding the Joe Serna Jr. Farmworker Housing Grant, which hasn’t been funded in over a decade. And federal agencies like the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should work closely with the San Mateo County Resource Conservation District to issue permits for its solutions to the region’s chronic flooding.

The bulk of the report’s recommendations call for solutions at the county level, however.

It calls for bringing sewer treatment, fire suppression, and flood control to Pescadero. It also recommends that the county “forge a roadmap toward affordable housing” and pass a rent control ordinance to protect low-income renters, as well as raise the county’s health program income requirements to provide farm workers with more consistent coverage. And it recommends an expansion of the county’s Agricultural Housing Rehabilitation and Replacement Pilot Program, which recently concluded a study quantifying the need for farmworker housing in the county.

For other problems, concrete solutions are less obvious. The funding shortfall for LHPUSD, caused by a drop in property taxes as private land is transferred to nonprofit open space trusts, is “going to take a lot of focused conversation with the superintendent and school board members to figure out what funding solutions there might be,” Wood said. And the region’s underlying economic problem — the drastic drop in overall agricultural production value — will require deeper analysis to address.

Wood sees the report as the beginning of a long-term conversation and collaboration.

“We’re committed to not only putting the facts out there, which was the first step of the report, but we’re committed to acting on the facts,” she said. “We’re actively looking at the recommendations and figuring out which ones we can chip away at sooner than later.”

For her part, Shade agrees with the report’s recommendations, although she says the region’s problems extend beyond its farm and nursery worker population.

“The farmworkers and their families are not the only residents that have a myriad of issues.  Other residents are also in need of the same amenities,” she said. And she is circumspect about recommendations that would grant greater authority to the county and state. “We should look long and hard to control unintended, unknown or unexpected consequences of any new laws,” she wrote.    

The foundation’s next steps will include reaching out to South Coast locals to identify which of the proposed solutions align with their highest priorities. And SVCF is exploring potential opportunities for grants, including a series of $100,000 grants it’s making in honor of its ten-year anniversary.

“These are not easy issues, and there’s not one issue, but multiple issues,” said Wood. “Nonetheless, we’re committed to doing what we can, committed to mobilizing other partners, and hopefully inspiring other donors to work with us.”

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