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On-site worker housing is the answer
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On-site worker housing is the answer

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The juxtaposition of stories on the front page of the Jan. 9 Register had me thinking about a two-birds-with-one-stone approach to a couple of the most vexing problems facing the local cities and county. One story addressed climate change (“Napa County leaders wonder if climate change issues are resonating with the public“) while another addressed the housing shortage (“Justin-Siena proposes employee housing on Napa high school property“). There lies a potential, albeit partial, solution to both problems. The cities and county should impose an employee-housing requirement on new or modified winery, vineyard and hospitality projects that require city or county approval. The county should initiate the 10-year rollback of all Williamson Act property tax breaks for vineyards and wineries that fail to initiate worker housing projects. This would mean wineries, vineyards, hotels and resorts would have to provide significant housing stock as a condition of approval or continuation of their property-tax benefit that costs county taxpayers $6 million per year.

Most everyone agrees that hospitality and viticulture do not create jobs that pay well enough for employees holding them to live in-county. In its October 2019 housing presentation, the City of Napa reported “Renters in Napa County need to earn $46.90 per hour—nearly 4 times the state minimum wage to afford the median asking rent of $2,439.”

According to the city, this is nearly triple the average hourly pay for restaurant service, retail and agriculture workers. It is almost double median teacher salaries. The city has identified 355 new low- and moderate-income housing units that need to be built by 2023. Fewer than half that number of permits have been issued. So, people working these jobs must come from out of the county, by car because the public transportation system is woefully inadequate.

According to the latest draft of the county’s Climate Action Plan, now 12 years in the making, on-road transportation accounted for 26% of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2014 and will not realize significant reductions, percentage-wise, through 2050. They will “replace building energy as the largest emissions sector in the future, accounting for 23 percent of emissions through 2050.”

The draft action plan does not inventory winery and vineyard emissions separately, a failure pointed out by the 2017-2018 Grand Jury.

Yet what are our leaders doing but approving more and more winery, vineyard and hospitality projects without regard to employee housing needs and greenhouse gas emissions created by these projects? Currently, viticulture and wine production do little more than make token efforts toward housing. The current action plan is without a single mandate directed at the industry. The Auction Napa Valley and other industry contributions are tokenism. The $180 million that the Napa Valley Vintners claim since 1981 seems like a lot but compared to the wine industry income, but it’s not much. In 2018 alone, gross income from grape growing exceeded $1 billion, up from $750 million in 2017. And these grants support only those who already live here.

Senator Bill Dodd carried legislation that limits vintner and grape grower taxation toward worker housing to a maximum $15 per acre. This amounts to less than $700,000 annually, not half enough to operate the 180-bed, seasonal male farm worker facilities run by the county. No facilities exist for women or families. The county does not even know how many farm workers there are. The last survey dates to 2012. Hospitality does even less. Seemingly, the Wine Train and Marriott hotels are the only ones thinking about on-site employee housing.

On-site worker housing is an answer. In a 2017 visit to the Bordeaux region of France, we observed that the leading winery chateaux provide on-site housing for their workers. I hope supervisors who recently visited the region observed this. Chateau Pontet-Canet provided an outstanding housing example. Its owners have a Napa venture—Pym-Rae on Mt. Veeder. Why couldn’t they show the way here, too?

Our signature wine industry is created and maintained on the backs of its under-served workers. The Justin-Siena model is one to be embraced across the county. It could be done. Do city and county leaders have the political fortitude to take meaningful steps to create affordable housing and climate protection? Sadly, current plans suggest they do not.

Chuck Dell’Ario is a Napa lawyer specializing in appellate practice. He was foreperson of the 2017-2018 Napa County Grand Jury.

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