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Marin County Launches Program for Farmworker Housing

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Mina Kim/KQED

John Taylor stands in front of his dairy in West Marin. Taylor provides housing for five of his full-time employees and their fifteen children.

Reported by: Mina Kim

Host: Marin County is one of California's most expensive housing markets. Now, the county is working to provide 200 homes for some of its poorest residents: farmworkers. KQED's Mina Kim reports, a new program will make it easier for farmers and ranchers to repair or build homes for workers living on their land.

Mina Kim: John Taylor's dairy, nestled in the hills of West Marin just north of Point Reyes station, is experiencing a baby boom.

John Taylor: Oh, in the last week we've had well over twenty calves, and we've had six on one day, so it's a busy time for us.

Kim: In the milking barn, sixteen pairs of cows eyes stare at us warily. A growing herd means he'll need more workers and Taylor is looking to hire three more employees in the next couple of years. And that means building more homes on his property.

Taylor: The men on the ranch, that work on the ranch, they need to live here. It's 24 hours a day, 365 days out of the year. I mean, the schedule is we have to milk these cows twice a day, and since we're a pasture based dairy, these cows actually go out to pasture every day.

Kim: Taylor says the dairy has invested a lot on quality housing for workers and their families. There are fifteen children among his five full-time employees. That's why Taylor jumped at the chance a year and a half ago to help build a program that would give ranchers a chance to finance worker housing through low-interest loans, grants and credit enhancements. That effort, launched recently by the Marin Workforce Housing Trust, is a collaboration of the county, business and community leaders, and the Marin Community Foundation.

Taylor: The nice thing about the program is it's going to address everybody's needs, so if you have a house that's in a state of need of repair, than it's going to be an opportunity to invest that.

Alex Porrata: The conditions are really varied from ranch to ranch based on resources. . .

Kim: Alex Porrata is one of several West Marin social service providers who surveyed ranch workers and their families for the program at health fairs and other gatherings. Porrata says some of the housing conditions are pretty rough.

Porrata: Holes in the floor, there might be problems with heating, there might be broken windows. We have a situation in one of our communities where the only bathroom is an outhouse, for instance.

Kim: But ranchers who participate in the program won't be penalized if the facilities they're now providing are not up to code says Linda Wagner, head of the Marin Workforce Housing Trust.

Wagner: The approach we've taken is these conversations are confidential. And that it doesn't trigger any kind of reaction if they are out of compliance in some way.

Kim: Wagner says program employees won't be asking about the immigration status of workers either.

Wagner: As far as the trust is concerned, we are interested in affordability and we are interested in safety.

Kim: Even with that assurance, dairyman John Taylor says ranchers are skittish about getting involved with outside agencies.

Taylor: I have gotten a few calls, from farmers and ranchers that I know asking me 'Okay, tell me what's really going on in the program. Tell me the streamline view.' I said 'It is face value.'

Kim: Taylor has already started the application process with the Trust for two homes he's hoping to build by fall and he hopes his experience will inspire others.

Alex Porrata says the workers she's talked to aren't getting their hopes up yet.

Porrata: This sounds almost too good to be true and we see some units coming up and there's momemtum, then people will get excited about it.

Kim: Porrata says workers are aware that any improvements in their living conditions are contingent on ranchers buying in to the program.

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