Farmworker Housing

Farmworkers sit outside one of the residence buildings at the River Ranch Farmworkers Housing Center in St Helena designed for single men.

Napa County is looking for ways that farmworkers with families can navigate a pricey Napa housing market, though one possible solution has its own sticker shock.

County supervisors on last week discussed building a family farmworker center to provide subsidized housing. While the county has no specific project in mind, it estimates a 60-unit project could cost $23 million to build, or $383,000 a unit.

Nobody at the meeting disputed that a need exists. Chris Indelicato of Delicato Family Vineyards told supervisors that creating farmworker family housing is “the right thing to do.”

“These folks work hard,” Indelicato said. “They bring a tremendous value and skill needed in the community. I don’t think a lot of people appreciate that. They deserve to live in the community that they work in, as well as the community they provide that value to.”

Napa County runs three migrant farmworker centers with a total of 180 beds for men only. A 2012 study estimated that another 1,000 housing units are needed to accommodate local farmworkers.

That study also showed that farm laborers historically worked the peak season in Napa vineyards and then left for other areas. Now they are increasingly staying in Napa year-round and want their families here.

Steve Moulds of Moulds Family Vineyard said the paradigm for farmworkers has shifted.

“We need them here year-round,” Moulds said. “I think we need to step up to this.”

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors began looking for solutions at the request of Board Chairman Alfredo Pedroza.

Various public programs exist that could help pay for family farmworker housing. Among them are a federal tax credit set-aside and United States Department of Agriculture programs, a county report said.

Still, Supervisor Keith Caldwell said costs in the $200,000 to $300,000 range to build an affordable housing apartment unit are a red flag. That is unsustainable, he said.

Consultant Jennifer LeSar said she understands Caldwell’s concerns.

“I do think when we say $300,000 per unit, I would just want to remind everybody that the local part is 10 percent to 30 percent,” she said.

“But that doesn’t make it right to me,” said Caldwell, who wants the county to look beyond “business as usual” options.

Several years ago, some people in the rural Berryessa Estates community northwest of Lake Berryessa walked away from good homes, Caldwell said. The county could buy them for $120,000 to $150,000 apiece for Pope Valley farmworkers.

“That is far less than we would ever pay to build new,” Caldwell said.

Should the county choose to build a family farmerworker center, a key question will be at what location. Measure L passed by county voters in 2002 allows up to five farmworker centers to be constructed on rural land protected for agriculture.

But Supervisor Diane Dillon said that Measure L envisioned dormitory style centers. She didn’t see rural locations as being ideal for families that need city services.

Securing a site within a city for a 60-unit complex would be expensive, a county report said. In addition, gaining city approvals would cost time and money.

A possibility is turning a planned-but-unbuilt affordable housing project into farmworker housing, county Housing and Intergovernmental Affairs Director Larry Florin said. As an example, he mentioned a county-owned site at 535 Coombsville Road approved by the city of Napa earlier this year for a 20-unit apartment.

“Coombsville is a burgeoning wine area,” Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said.

Another idea is to buy existing apartments and rent them to farmworkers. But no new housing would be created and that could add to the county’s overall housing availability crunch, a county report said.

Supervisor Mark Luce sees the need for farmworker housing, but noted hotel service workers also face challenges finding affording housing in Napa County.

“If we can do this for farmworkers, why can’t we do it for other low-income Napa workers?” Luce said.

Meanwhile, the county faces challenges with its three existing farmerworker centers for men. The centers are running at a loss and savings will run out in a couple of years, Florin said.

One source of the $1.3 million annual operating funds comes from the $13-a-day rent paid by lodgers. Another is a $10-per-acre assessment paid by vineyard growers, with the amount capped by state law.

Florin said discussions are underway with the wine industry to seek state legislation that would allow for a bigger assessment.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.