Farmworker Housing

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

Gov. Jerry Brown this week signed a state budget that includes $250,000 that Napa County has long sought to help keep its farmworker housing program financially afloat.

The county tried for three years to make this happen, said Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners. Finally, it succeeded.

“I think, first and foremost, this is for the farmworkers who are so critical to the success of our industry and obviously at this point in time are not feeling as universally appreciated as they once were, given what’s going on in our society and country,” Stults said.

Napa County has three migrant farmworker centers that house a total of 180 men. Money for operations comes largely from a $10-per-acre annual assessment on vineyards and $13-a-day rent paid by lodgers.

The annual, $1.3 million operation in recent years has used savings to balance the budget. Napa County looked to the state for help, given that the state owns and manages Central Valley farmworker centers. Local leaders said Napa should receive at least some level of state contribution.

That one-time state contribution of $250,000 will allow the county to catch up on maintenance and capital improvements at the centers, county Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said.

“We didn’t give up,” he said. “We kept telling our story. I think the reality is folks started recognizing the uniqueness of our model, where it is truly a private-public partnership.”

That’s not the end of Napa County’s efforts. Assembly Bill 317 by Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, would require the state to continue making the $250,000 contribution each year.

“Rising costs, coupled with inflation, have resulted in the region’s centers operating at a deficit,” a state Legislature bill analysis said. “Without state support, Napa may have to shut down these centers, eliminating critical housing infrastructure for the region.”

Aguiar-Curry’s bill on Tuesday passed out of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and faces further votes. This happened the same day that Brown signed the state budget with the one-time $250,000 appropriation.

“Today has been a big day for us. I am grateful and excited that the Legislature has been supportive of Napa’s farmworker centers thus far,” Aguiar-Curry said in a press release.

Meanwhile, Napa County grapegrowers are voting whether to continue the annual $10 assessments on vineyards to help pay for the program. They must renew the assessment every five years.

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Votes are to be counted and the results will be announced at the July 11 county Board of Supervisors meeting.

Stults said Napa Valley Vintners, Napa County Farm Bureau, Napa Valley Grapegrowers and Winegrowers of Napa County have a list of about 50 top landowners. The groups divided the names among themselves and contacted the landowners to tell them why a “yes” vote is important.

“Now more than ever we need to step up and support this,” Stults said.

Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, is sponsoring a bill that would give Napa County state authorization to raise the assessment to a maximum of $15 per acre per year. But, even if the bill passes, that doesn’t mean vineyard owners would suddenly see an increase from $10 to $15.

Rather, Stults said, the idea is to phase in higher assessments, matched by increases to the lodging rent. These components are to combine with state contributions to keep the local farmworkers housing program in the black.

“All of it together, it’s been a big package and a heavy lift to make things happen,” Stults said.

He said he thinks the state can learn from the way the wine industry and government work together on Napa County’s farmworker housing program.

“We really have the model farmworker housing of any agricultural region…There’s no one doing anything like this anywhere else. It’s something I’m proud of for Napa Valley,” Stults said.

Napa County for more than a decade has owned the Calistoga center south of Calistoga, the Mondavi Center southeast of Yountville and the River Ranch center east of St. Helena. It runs them through a partnership of the Napa County Housing Authority, Napa County Housing Commission and the nonprofit California Human Development Corp.

Each center is dormitory-style lodging. For example, the River Ranch center is clean but spartan, with concrete floors and an eating room with card table chairs.

Farmworker housing has a separate budget than the county general fund. Deputy County Executive Officer Molly Rattigan said the county is taking $100,000 to $200,000 annually from savings within this budget to keep the three centers operating. Without changes, savings will be exhausted in two to three years.

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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.