Man holding microphone at community forum
Assistant City Attorney Phil Sinco, left, answers a question about housing for H-2A temporary farmworker housing while Jessi Steele and Dan Klemman from the Santa Barbara County Planning and Development Department listen. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

A number of factors, including utility access, have hampered putting seasonal farm worker housing on agricultural land in Santa Barbara County.

That was among the key points made Thursday during a public forum in Santa Maria.

“One message I want to get across tonight is that there are very real, strict limitations that reside in state law, which limit our ability to authorize the kind of housing that we really need to address this issue,” said Dan Klemann, deputy director of Santa Barbara County’s Long-Range Planning Division.

This includes laws discouraging and prohibiting urban sprawl, rules to preserve ag land, and property lacking access to water and sewer services, he said. 

More than 60 people attended the first of five planned forums about housing for the federal H-2A temporary farmworker program.

The meeting was held in the Atkinson Park Community Center in northwest Santa Maria.

“The goal of these forums is to provide education to our policymakers and the public about the very complex world of the H-2A program,” said Assistant City Attorney Philip Sinco, who added that future forum will look at other aspects.

Several City Council and Planning Commission members attended the event.

The meetings stem from complaints that single-family homes in Santa Maria were being filled with H-2A workers, pitting long-time homeowners objecting to the changes in their neighborhood against growers trying to get produce harvested.

Audience members listen at community forum

Santa Maria residents listen during a meeting on housing for H-2A temporary farmworker program. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

H-2A allows foreign single workers to come into the country for seasonal jobs, with growers needing to meet guidelines for salary, housing and other aspects. Workers must undergo background checks to be accepted into the program.

Housing requirements calls for 50 square feet of bedroom space per employee, along with a kitchen equipped with a refrigerator and stove. If a kitchen is not provided, the employer must provide meals.

This program is not new to Santa Barbara County, especially Santa Maria.

Of the 2,691 workers in the 2017 season, 1,700 stayed in Santa Maria, Sinco said. They have been housed in residential dwellings and renovated motels dedicated to H-2A housing.

“One of our plans is to work with the hotels and see if we can’t come up a better arrangement or some encouragement — some incentives — to have them actually house more workers than they’re currently doing,” Sinco said. “That’s part of our plan. We haven’t quite set it into motion yet. As I said, there’s as a lot of moving parts to this puzzle.”

But the county’s representatives noted the problem extends beyond housing for ag workers.

“Really, this is a housing scarcity problem. It’s not something unique to the H-2A program,” Klemann said. 

“This is really a regional problem. It’s not any single jurisdiction’s problem. No single jurisdiction can solve the housing crises that Santa Barbara County, Ventura County and to a lesser degree San Luis Obispo County is facing,” Klemann said.

Santa Barbara County has a farm worker housing ordinance to help foster future new ag employee residences where possible and within regulations, he said.

County staff also has worked to streamline the permitting process, Klemann added. 

“What we’re finding with these projects is the permit to allow the housing is not so much a constraint. What really constrains the farmers when it comes to this sort of housing are the utilities that must be installed in order to serve these types of units,” he said.

Only one application has been submitted — and approved — for H-2A housing, calling for 30 bunkhouses for 600 workers on nearly eight acres west of Santa Maria. That project is going through additional approvals prior to development.

Audience members asked numerous questions, including wondering why H-2A housing isn’t developed on empty lots in Santa Maria.

“One thing is people have to bring the applications,” Sinco said. “We can’t magically make that happen, so if people aren’t willing to do it, it’s not going to happen.”

City staff has been contacted by developers interested in building H-2A projects, he added.

But to make projects affordable and profitable, they need density higher than now allowed in the city, Sinco added.

For instance, high density regulations in Santa Maria allow 22 units per acre, but large cities have 40 units per acre. 

Another audience member suggested using the former Costco building to house foreign farm workers in Santa Maria.

The next H-2A housing forum will occur July 19 with the location and topic to be announced in the coming weeks.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.