The Santa Maria City Council.
Under pressure from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, members of the Santa Maria City Council on Tuesday night will consider repealing a recently approved agricultural employee housing law. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

After being chastised by federal regulators, the Santa Maria City Council is poised this week to repeal its employee housing law and approve a voluntary compliance agreement for adopting rules deemed discriminatory against temporary farmworkers. 

The matter returns to the City Council’s agenda on Tuesday night, two weeks after a failed attempt to repeal the employee housing law prompted angry remarks from some members due to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allegation of civil rights violation.

“The only comment I want to make is that this ordinance worked. It was very useful. It helped very much,” Mayor Pro-Tem Etta Waterfield said during the June 1 meeting. “We got spanked for using certain pronouns, which you do every day. 

“But because of that, all of us up here…will have to take sensitivity training. I’m just really sad for our constituents,” she said. “Our hands are literally tied.”

The issue centers on efforts to create rules for federal H-2A seasonal farmworker employees amid complaints from residents fearful that dozens of workers would be crammed into single-family homes.

Before adopting the employee housing law, several workshops and meetings occurred in 2018 and 2019 during which ag industry leaders spelled out the rules they must follow under the federal H-2A program.

The adopted housing ordinance sought to balance potential neighborhood concerns and the need to maintain housing for agricultural laborers, city leaders said.

“What the ordinance did was permit employee housing in the multi-family zone, but in the single-family zones required a conditional-use permit,” Community Development Director Chuen Ng said at the June 1 meeting.

Since adoption of the new rule, the city had not received any applications for any conditional-use permits to allow employee housing.

During the June 1 meeting, staff danced around the reasons for repealing the housing law even after Waterfield spoke up, saying she wanted the city attorney to spell out why the topic returned to the agenda. 

Councilman Mike Cordero said he believed the council, ag industry and community had worked well to come up with the rules.

“If I didn’t have this threat of litigation from the federal government, I wouldn’t even entertain a thought about repealing this, but I don’t believe we have a choice in the matter, and the general public needs to know that,” Cordero said.

“I just don’t want the public at large to think we don’t care because we do care,” he said.

Cordero and Waterfield voted to repeal the housing rules, Mayor Alice Patino and Councilman Carlos Escobedo voted against it. That meant attempts to repeal the rules failed.

A staff report for this week’s meeting spells out the allegation from HUD and includes the voluntary compliance and conciliations agreements to resolve the matter or face a $400,000 fine.

In 2020, HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) opened an investigation under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974.

Additionally, a complaint alleged unlawful discrimination because of race, color, or national origin by restricting housing for H- 2A farmworker visa holders within the city.

Along with repealing the ordinance, the city must publish a written statement on its website about discontinuing enforcement of the employee housing rules.

The settlement with HUD requires any employee involved in creating the ordinance and all current council members to attend a two-hour training course on fair housing issues conducted by a qualified instructor approved by HUD. 

The pact required Santa Maria to submit to HUD a language access plan detailing how the city will provide access to limited English proficient individuals seeking services or benefits.

Santa Maria also must designate an employee housing resource officer, who will receive assorted housing complaints, and serve as the primary point of contact for owners, operators, and residents of employee housing.

The City Council meeting will begin at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday with the agenda available here. The meetings also can be found on the city’s YouTube channel.

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