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Half Moon Bay Prepares to Break Ground on Farmworker Housing

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Cornelio sits on the porch of a Half Moon Bay guesthouse, where he has a temporary room, on March 14, 2024. He survived the mass shooting at a local mushroom farm in January 2023 but continues to work there. He says he hopes the city can build safe, affordable homes for farmworkers like himself. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

After their shift at a local mushroom farm one recent afternoon, two farmworkers, smudged with dirt and sawdust, trudged back to their rented rooms in Half Moon Bay.

The motel rooms are clean and safe and have been home for Vicente and Cornelio since shortly after a coworker opened fire at this farm and another nearby in January 2023. The men asked that we use only their first names for immigration concerns.

While the mass shooting claimed seven lives, it also shone a light on the terrible living conditions at the mushroom farms, which local officials decried as deplorable and heartbreaking and vowed to improve.

“There were four of us in the trailer,” says Vicente, 52, who has worked at the farm for three years. “We had nowhere to cook and no hot water. You endure it out of necessity. But it was not good, suffering in the cold like that.”

While these rooms, paid for by the county, have heat and access to a kitchen, Vicente says knowing he’ll have to move has added to his sense of vulnerability.

Half Moon Bay Mayor Joaquin Jimenez (in vest) and housing coordinator Mike Noce visit a site on March 14, 2023, where the city plans to build 47 affordable homes for farmworkers with very low incomes. The project is due to break ground next month and will include units for rent and for purchase, Noce says. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

“Ever since the tragedy, we feel insecure. It affected us so much,” he says, adding that he wants a home where he can reunite with his wife and 7-year-old son. The family has been separated since the shooting because they couldn’t afford a place big enough to live together, he says.

That desire for a permanent place could be a reality by early next year. Half Moon Bay officials plan to break ground next month to erect nearly four dozen manufactured homes. The new development, known as Stone Pine Cove, will be built on a parcel of city land, less than a 10-minute walk from downtown Half Moon Bay. It’s geared toward low-income farmworkers, like Vicente and Cornelio, and the other families displaced from the mushroom farms.

Two other farmworker housing projects are also in the works in the area, though they’ll take longer. Together, they could create some 200 units, and make a modest dent in the acute shortage of affordable housing in coastal San Mateo County. The most recent survey available, from 2016, found the county needs at least 1,000 units of farmworker housing.

“I would be so happy to have a house like that,” says Cornelio, who still struggles with the trauma of the mass shooting, even after group therapy provided by a local community organization. “I’m so grateful to everyone who has extended a hand to us.”

‘We are in an emergency’

Last year, after the shooting, officials, including Gov. Gavin Newsom and Rep. Anna Eshoo, pledged to transform the tragedy into critically needed investments in decent farmworker housing. That’s a much more costly proposition here in the expensive Bay Area than in more rural parts of the state, and the sense of urgency continues.

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“We are in an emergency,” Half Moon Bay Mayor Joaquín Jiménez says. “Families are still living crowded. They’re getting ready to move out of Half Moon Bay.”

Officials cobbled together the $16 million budget for Stone Pine Cove from a combination of federal, state and local sources, plus some philanthropic dollars.

County Supervisor Ray Mueller says ensuring good quality, affordable housing for farmworkers is not only the right thing to do, it’s important for the health of the county’s economy — where agriculture is a $100-million industry, with products ranging from flowers to Brussels sprouts to Half Moon Bay’s famous pumpkins.

“Agriculture is incredibly important,” Mueller says. “It provides food resilience to the region. … and then obviously there’s the economics of being able to go ahead and have that thriving industry there which provides good jobs.”

Officials estimate San Mateo County has as many as 2,000 farmworkers overall, mostly in the area locals refer to as the “Coastside.” Mueller says he’s working to make it easier for farmers to build quality housing on their farms.

Mayor Joaquin Jimenez stops on a bridge in downtown Half Moon Bay on March 14, 2024. Jimenez, the son of a farmworker, has made farmworker housing a priority. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

Affordable housing in the works

The $1 million the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors committed to housing the 38 displaced mushroom farm workers for a year ran out this month, but Half Moon Bay and local foundations will cover a second year while Stone Pine Cove is built.

Other affordable housing projects are in the works, too, but they won’t be ready for several years. Half Moon Bay plans a 40-unit apartment building for farmworkers 55 and older. Meanwhile, the county is in the process of buying a former flower nursery where Mueller says 100 homes could be built and is eyeing two other locations.

“We are light years from where we were a year ago,” Mueller says. “But we haven’t crossed the finish line in terms of opening any of those housing sites. … So we can’t lose that momentum. The good news is, there’s no indication that we will.”

The shooting also prompted the county to create a new task force to inspect all on-farm housing in unincorporated areas to ensure it meets health and safety standards. County officials say of the roughly 50 farms they’ve visited that provide housing, they haven’t found egregious violations, but more than a quarter have been ordered to make fixes such as repairing unsafe wiring and ensuring a clean water supply.

At a Half Moon Bay City Council meeting on March 14, 2024, Mayor Joaquín Jiménez speaks about the urgency of building affordable housing for farmworkers and other essential workers with low incomes. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

‘That much more severe for farmworkers’

The agricultural region of coastside San Mateo County is just over a ridge from the heart of Silicon Valley, where high salaries and stock options have fueled ever-increasing housing costs.

A recent survey by the California Association of Realtors showed the median home price in San Mateo County is over $1.9 million, making it the most expensive county in California.

Edward Flores, the faculty director at UC Merced’s Center for Community and Labor Center, says the acute housing crisis for farmworkers in San Mateo is simply a more extreme example of a statewide affordable housing problem confronting millions of workers who fill essential jobs but are paid little.

“Agricultural workers are among the lowest-earning occupations,” he says. “So as severe as the state’s housing crisis is for low-wage workers, it’s even that much more severe for farm workers.”

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Most farmworkers in the Coastside earn little more than the minimum wage of $17.35/hour, Jiménez says, the Half Moon Bay mayor. But in San Mateo County, a living wage that covers the basics can be well over twice that, depending on how many children a worker supports.

“The fact is, we need help from the county,” says Vicente, the mushroom farm worker. “Because here in Half Moon Bay the rent is really high, and we don’t earn much.”

Sharing a home with 21 people

As the child of farmworkers himself, Jiménez knows what it’s like when low-wage workers have to crowd into housing. During his teenage years, he says, his family shared a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house with 21 people.

After running a local farmworker outreach program for years, Jiménez is now spearheading a project to build a farmworker co-op in Half Moon Bay where farmworkers can profit from the produce they grow.

“The idea is to help them build wealth for their family,” he says. “We’re looking for opportunities to better the lives of our essential workers.”

On a recent visit to the future site of Stone Pine Cove, Jiménez extolled the fact that 28 of the homes will be available for purchase, using a state program of forgivable 20-year home loans geared toward agricultural workers with very low incomes.

“The farmworkers are going to get to own their modular home,” says Jiménez, who says home ownership is one more step toward stability.

The parcel sits just across a small creek from the California Terra Garden mushroom farm. When it’s developed, it will have a wildlife buffer along the creek, a walking trail and a playground for children.

Sitting on the porch of the guesthouse, Vicente says he can picture his son playing in a little park like that.

“We don’t need a fancy house,” he says. “Just a simple house with the basics, where we can be together as a family.”

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