Supporting the future of Ventura County’s roughly $2 billion agricultural economy isn’t just a water issue, it’s a housing issue. Imagine a family of six sharing a one-bedroom apartment in one of the rundown apartment complexes that dot the county. That’s the living situation of many families who work in the fields of Ventura County.
According to the House Farm Workers organization based in Santa Paula, the industry’s ability to thrive in the future rests largely on efforts to develop affordable housing for families who work on farms and in the fields.
“Ventura County is a tremendously important agricultural county, especially with respect to highly labor-intensive crops, but it’s also an expensive place,” said Karen Flock, real estate development director for the Cabrillo Economic Development Corp. “In the effort to treat people right and maintain the agricultural livelihood of the people and the region, there needs to be more affordable places for farm workers to live.”
Since its creation in 2004, the organization’s biggest contribution has been bringing people from the agricultural and development sector as well as the broader community together to support this need, she said.
Thanks to these efforts, more than 500 homes have been completed or planned in Ventura County. The group is run by the Farm Worker Housing Task Force, which is a subcommittee of the Ventura County Ag Futures Alliance.
Task force membership and communication are informal, and the program is overseen by an 11-member executive committee. The Ag Innovations Network, also a nonprofit organization, provides most of the funding for House Farm Workers.
With solid affordable housing overhead, officials say farm workers’ children are often healthier and do better in school. Families experience less stress and can devote more resources to food, clothing, health care and other needs. For employees, secure housing provides a more stable and dependable work force.
According to the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, farming and farm-dependent businesses provide an estimated 31,000 jobs in Ventura County, second only to the service sector in workforce.
While a number of affordable and farm worker-driven projects have come up in recent years, including Fillmore Central Station and Snapdragon Place Apartments in Ventura finally under way, the need still outweighs the supply. With the average farm worker in the county barely making $20,000, options for many are scarce. Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the county is roughly $1,500 per month.
Some employers are coming to understand that to keep operations sustainable, they must get on board with the farm worker housing push.
The major citrus grower Limoneira Co. is one of those companies. In 2012 the publicly traded citrus grower completed several units of a planned 74-unit rental housing project for farm workers on property that it owned, and the company has plans to add more.
House Farm Workers often works with companies like Limoneira, the CEDC and the Ventura County Community Foundation.
VCCF established the Ventura County Fund for Farmworker Housing in 2003 with the mission of increasing the supply of safe, affordable housing for Ventura County farm workers. In the 11 years since its founding, the fund has granted $465,500 to build new homes for local agricultural employees.
Grants also developed leaders to advocate for farm worker housing and educate the community about the importance of quality living places for this workforce sector.
While leadership and education have flourished, the need for farm worker housing remains, according to the VCCF. Last year, VCCF partnered with the Ventura County Housing Trust Fund to establish a $100,000 permanent revolving fund dedicated to farm worker housing.
VCCF maintains that the livelihood of workers employed on Ventura County farms is inextricably tied to the history, health and prosperity of the larger community.
“The broad based education that the House Farm Workers organization provides has been very helpful in addressing these,” Flock said. “The attention they’ve brought to this issue and the support they’ve created for projects continue to be needed.”