Alfredo Valdovinos and his wife, Irma, work hard
harvesting lemons in Santa Paula, Calif. Until recently,
the couple and their four children lived in a two-room
converted garage that didn’t have a kitchen. Even
for a place that small, the rent was costly for the two
On top of that, the Valdovinos family was hard hit in
the winter of 2007 when crop freezes led to work stoppages.
They were earning less than half their normal income and
were thinking about going back to Mexico.
Instead of leaving the country, they were able to move
into the Vista Hermosa Apartments, a new 24-unit housing
development for farmworkers developed by the Cabrillo
Economic Development Corp. (CEDC), which has built or
rehabilitated 360 homes for agricultural workers in Ventura
County. In the next three years, the nonprofit developer
will near the 600-unit mark.
The $8.3 million Vista Hermosa is the first farmworker
apartment community in Santa Paula, known as the
“citrus capital of the world.”
The development provides its residents with experiences
that many people take for granted. “We can sit
together and have dinner,” Valdovinos said through
an interpreter. “It’s a great thing. We
feel more like a normal family. We feel
In their last home, the family dined on TV trays. At
their new four-bedroom apartment, the children have their
own rooms and places to study. The couple’s young
daughter recently received an award from her school for
The Valdovinos pay about the same amount for the new
apartment as they did for their garage. Vista Hermosa
residents pay 30 percent of their income toward rent, with
rental assistance coming from the U.S. Department of
In many cases, farmworkers need rental assistance, said
Jesse Ornelas, deputy real estate development director at
Overcrowding is another serious problem. Farm laborers
often share an apartment or a house with one or more other
families. Developments like Vista Hermosa help alleviate
that kind of doubling up, Ornelas said.
CEDC financed Vista Hermosa with multiple sources of
funding, including a $1.8 million USDA loan, $2.5 million
in lowincome housing tax credits (LIHTCs) syndicated by the
National Equity Fund, Inc., and $2.9 million from the
California Department of Housing and Community Development
through its Joe Serna Jr. Farmworker Housing Grant program.
Numerous green-building techniques were incorporated into
Services offered include free mobile medical care and
health education, youth programs, and homeownership and
Ornelas said the many groups with a stake in the
state’s agriculture industry—
farmworkers, growers, advocates, policymakers—
have come together on housing issues in recent years. They
need to. In California, agriculture is a whopping $32
“If you are going to have a viable agricultural
economy, we have to improve the housing conditions for
those who toil in the fields,” Ornelas said.
At 40, Valdovinos has been a farmworker for more than
half his life. He is passionate when he speaks about his
work. “What we do is very valuable,” he
said, explaining that farmworkers work under the hot sun
and in the cold to make it possible for families to have
Vista Hermosa is an important addition to its community.
It’s also a drop in the ocean in meeting the
housing needs of farmworkers, some of the hardest-working
and lowestpaid people in the nation. Because of their low
wages, farmworkers struggle to find housing.
Nationwide, the number of farmworkers is estimated at
anywhere from 1.6 million to 3 million.
“One of the problems we have is we
aren’t quite sure how many people we have working
in the fields,” said Moises Loza, executive
director of the Housing Assistance Council (HAC), a
nonprofit organization that helps local groups build
affordable homes in rural America. He explained that the
work is often seasonal, so the numbers rise and fall
throughout the year, and it is also at the mercy of the
The National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) from the
Department of Labor interviewed 6,472 crop farmworkers in
fiscal 2001 and 2002. The sample population consisted of
nearly all farmworkers in crop agriculture, including field
packers and supervisors. The survey found that 30 percent
of all farmworkers had total family incomes that were below
the poverty guidelines.
Advocates say the majority of farmworkers live in
poverty and cite a rate of about 60 percent.
The workforce is predominantly foreign- born. In
2001-2002, just 23 percent of all hired crop farmworkers
were born in the United States; 75 percent were born in
Mexico; 2 percent in Central America; and 1 percent came
from other countries, according to NAWS, a nationwide
HAC has also studied farmworker housing and found that
almost 52 percent of the units it surveyed were crowded,
nearly 10 times higher than the national average. HAC
reported that 17 percent of the units were severely
substandard and another 16 percent were moderately
Farmworkers’ housing challenges start with
their low incomes, but other serious issues exist.
They often face language barriers when trying to find
and secure housing. Among the workers interviewed in
2001-2002, 44 percent said they could not speak English
“at all,” 26 percent said they could
speak it “a little,” 6 percent said they
spoke “some,” and 24 percent said they
spoke English “well,” according to NAWS.
The responses were similar regarding the ability to read
Researchers have also found that fewer farm laborers are
following the crops to find work. Instead, more of them are
staying in one place. This suggests that more permanent
housing is needed.
For developers, farmworker housing has its own unique
and formidable set of challenges, one of the biggest being
finding soft funding sources.
“The housing is in small rural communities that
don’t have access to their own housing
funds,” said Paul Purcell, president of Beacon
Development Group in Seattle, which has developed 16
farmworker housing projects over the last nine years.
“They are not in Community Development Block Grant
entitlement areas. There is very limited soft
He said he is fortunate in Washington because the state
has a housing trust fund. Most of Beacon’s
farmworker housing deals combine LIHTCs and money from the
The firm recently worked with Catholic Housing Services
of Eastern Washington to develop Tepeyac Haven in Pasco,
Wash. The 44-unit development for agricultural workers was
built using environmentally friendly materials and
techniques and is the first affordable housing development
to receive gold certification from the Leadership in Energy
and Environmental Design for Homes. Financing for the $7.6
million development included about $5.9 million in LIHTCs
syndicated by Homestead Capital and $1.4 million from the
state housing trust fund.
Sec. 514 and Sec. 516
The USDA’s Rural Development (RD) division has
two farm labor housing programs, which are also known as
Sec. 514 and Sec. 516. These programs fund the purchase,
construction, and repair of farmworker housing. Since the
early 1960s, about $569 million in Sec. 514 loans and $413
million in Sec. 516 grants have been allocated. Nearly
35,000 units have been produced through the farm labor
In fiscal 2007, the USDA reported approving about $33.6
million in farm labor housing funds to 27 new construction
projects and about $18.2 million in repairs and
rehabilitation work for 26 projects.
An appropriations bill for 2008 had yet to be approved
in late November 2007, leaving the agency to carry on
business as usual. “Right now, the plan is to do
what we did last year,” said Russell Davis,
administrator of USDA RD’s housing and community
However, the 2008 budget proposal from the White House
calls for cuts in the Sec. 516 grant program, which would
receive only $4 million in funding, a precipitous decline
from $22 million in the previous year. The Sec. 514 direct
loan program would be increased to $14 million from $9
Other serious concerns hang over farmworker housing as
well, including the age of the existing housing stock.
“Our average farm labor property has gone 30 years
without rehab,” Davis said. “There are a
lot of worn-out properties and exhausted reserve funds.
It’s a high priority to get that rehab
As a result, there may be a trend for more rehab work
versus new construction.
HAC recently analyzed 787 Sec. 514 and Sec. 516
properties with active loans and found that about 61
percent were built before 1990. The development of new
units of Sec. 514 and Sec. 516 housing has been steadily
falling over the past 25 years, despite moderate increases
in funding. “During the 1980s, nearly 400 projects
were built, accounting for just over 4,000 units,”
said HAC in its report, USDA Section 514/516 Farmworker
Housing: Existing Stock and Changing Needs.
“The following decade, however, saw the production
of only 223 projects with a total of about 3,500
Tenant eligibility is another brewing issue.
There’s been some discussion about expanding the
definition of farm laborer to include some processing plant
workers. These employees have characteristics similar to
traditional farmworkers. The move has met with resistance
from some tenant advocates because expanding the definition
means already limited dollars will have to be spread out to
serve more people.
Properties funded with USDA’s farm labor
housing programs are required to restrict tenancy to
farmworkers who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent
residents. That’s a tougher standard than most
other housing programs.
An affordable housing developer in the Southeast said he
has been finding that one out of three agricultural workers
is undocumented and therefore does not meet the USDA
requirements. The NAWS report found that as many as 53
percent of the hired crop labor force lacked work
authorization, down from 55 percent in 1999-2000.
With illegal immigration a hot-button topic, the issue
of tenancy is expected to get even more discussion.
Some developers are hoping that the USDA farm labor
housing programs can be expanded to serve workers who are
in the country legally but do not have permanent
Although USDA funds have historically played an
important role in funding farm labor housing, the
21-year-old housing tax credit program is the primary
source for funding affordable housing of all kinds.
Davis said when it comes to funding new construction,
the trend is toward using LIHTCs, which are sold to
private-sector investors to raise equity for affordable
housing projects. “Farm labor housing is like any
other [government-supported housing],” Davis said.
“It is going toward [using the programs that are]
least expensive in terms of government
Rural Neighborhoods, Inc., has 1,380 affordable housing
units in operation or development, with nearly all of the
units serving farmworkers. That makes the nonprofit
organization, which was founded in 1982 in response to the
threatened closure of a 400-unit labor camp near Miami, one
of the leading developers of farm labor housing in its home
state of Florida and in the nation.
The group began in 1996 utilizing USDA’s farm
labor housing loans and grants along with the Federal Home
Loan Bank’s Affordable Housing Program, but as
land and construction costs rose, it moved to combining RD
funds with LIHTCs or Florida Housing Finance Corp. (Florida
Housing) loans, said Steven Kirk, president of Rural
The group has two developments in the pipeline that
combine Sec. 514 loans and tax credits. It’s a
workable formula, but the disadvantage is that the projects
cannot receive any Sec. 516 grants because USDA does not
award grants to partnerships, according to Kirk. LIHTC
properties are typically developed as
“Still, reliance on RD funds brings project-based
rental assistance to the development, ensuring true
affordability regardless of a household’s income
level,” Kirk said. “This is particularly
helpful in serving extremely low income
Rural Neighborhood’s Oaks at Shannon’s
Crossing in Okeechobee, Fla., is one example. Developed in
partnership with Beneficial Communities, a Sarasota, Fla.-
based developer, and PNC Bank, its tax credit investor,
this 100-unit community provides rental assistance to 90
percent of its households. The one-, two-, and
three-bedroom apartments have maximum rents of $380 to $523
per month. Financing includes RD, LIHTCs, and Federal Home
Loan Bank funds.
More recently, Rural Neighborhoods has developed
projects with LIHTCs and no RD funds. Florida Housing funds
two farmworker housing developments per allocation cycle,
according to Kirk. These developments must set aside 40
percent of their units for agricultural workers. The
disadvantage is that rents on a LIHTC property are often
higher than they would be with RD subsidies. However, on
the positive side, the LIHTC properties provide needed
affordable housing and offer some additional flexibility
because the developments are not limited to one group of
workers, Kirk said.
Together with Miami-based Pinnacle Housing Group, Rural
Neighborhoods has developed Live Oak Villas I and II in
Fort Pierce, Fla., which have a combined 184 units. Maximum
rents range from $592 to $787 for the one-, two-, and
three-bedroom units. In Live Oak Villas I, 60 percent of
the units are occupied by farmworkers, and in Live Oak
Villas II, 40 percent of the units are occupied by
farmworkers. The remaining units are for other workforce
families earning up to 60 percent of the area median
income. Citigroup is the first-mortgage lender, with tax
credit equity provided through Alliant Capital.
The challenges of site acquisition, land use, and
competitive financing are no different in communities
targeting agricultural workers than in other affordable
rental communities, said Kirk. “The added
complexity in serving farmworkers is to understand
agricultural markets and wages, and to layer sufficient
subsidies to reach affordability.”
Rural Opportunities, Inc. (ROI), is a Rochester,
N.Y.-based nonprofit organization that develops affordable
housing for low-income families, including projects
exclusively for farmworkers. ROI, a chartered member of
NeighborWorks America, has also used various funding
combinations to finance its developments.
It’s about to break ground on the first
USDA-financed farmworker project in Puerto Rico. About
eight years in predevelopment, the 24-unit Alturas de
Castaner will primarily house coffee workers, said John
Wiltse, senior operations director for ROI. The $2.1
million project is funded with a Sec. 514 loan, LIHTCs, and
grant funding from NeighborWorks America.
ROI is considering other ways to provide housing,
including using LIHTCs to develop general family housing
with the idea that some of the apartments would be marketed
One of ROI’s earlier farmworker projects is the
Harvest Park Apartments in Wayne County, N.Y., a major
When construction jobs became scarce in Syracuse, N.Y.,
John Hollis moved to Wayne County, where he has been
working in the apple orchards. He has lived at Harvest Park
for about the last two years.
The rents at the other nearby apartment communities
would probably be out of reach for him. Hollis estimates
that they would cost about $400 more per month.
“Farmworkers put food on our tables while
generally earning poverty-level wages, yet these working
poor households are largely ignored when it comes to
affordable housing,” Wiltse said.
Housing Opens for Oregon Farmworkers
Colonia Amistad is the first farmworker rental housing
development built on the fertile lands of Polk County,
Ore., despite the fact that county’s estimated
4,794 agricultural workers make up about 7 percent of the
area population and are expected to grow in number.
It was built for people like Abel Chavez, who works at a
local nursery. Chavez, his wife, and their four children
were packed into a small one-bedroom apartment a few months
ago. The children were frequently sick, and everyone was
stressed from the cramped living conditions.
Life has changed since the family moved into Colonia
Amistad in the community of Independence.
“Coming to this place has helped us physically,
mentally,” said Chavez.
When spring arrives, he will take a second job, he said,
picking strawberries on weekends. A farmworker in Oregon
for the past two years, Chavez has also harvested
blueberries, cucumbers, and zucchini.
At Colonia Amistad, the average annual household income
of the residents is $17,750, said Roberto Jimenez,
executive director of the Farmworkers Housing Development
Corp. (FHDC), which developed the project. The nonprofit
specializes in providing affordable housing for
agricultural workers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley
region. In 1994, FHDC was the first in the nation to
develop a farmworker housing project using low-income
housing tax credits (LIHTCs).
The $6.5 million Colonia Amistad was also financed with
LIHTCs, which were syndicated by Enterprise Community
Investment, Inc., and generated about $4 million in equity.
As in most states, there is more demand than available tax
credits in Oregon, and it took two tries for Colonia
Amistad to win a LIHTC reservation. The state is unique
because the Oregon Housing and Community Services
department has its own farmworker housing tax credit
program that provided about $540,000 for the development.
The nonprofit Community and Shelter Assistance Corp., also
known as CASA of Oregon, assisted in the development.
Monthly rents for three-bedroom apartments in the
community are either $520 or $540, compared to about $715
for similarly sized market-rate units in the area. The
38-unit development also has two- and four-bedroom
In all, the project, which incorporated many green
building features, took more than three years to develop.
In addition to competing for funds, the project faced local
opposition. The planning commission did not support it, and
the project went before the city council for a vote. The
council deadlocked 3-3, with the mayor stepping in to break
the tie, according to Jimenez.
FHDC has since built strong relationships in the
community, according to Jimenez.