New funding to build farmworker housing in the Pacific Northwest, nationwide - Salish Current
May 1, 2024
New funding to build farmworker housing in the Pacific Northwest, nationwide
Lauren Gallup, Northwest Public Broadcasting

Housing developers in the Northwest and across the country have until July 3 to apply for some of $48 million earmarked by the Department of Agriculture for farmworker housing construction. Farmworkers in tulip fields and elsewhere in Skagit County are among residents most impacted by the area’s low housing vacancy rates. (Brad Smith / Flickr)

May 1, 2024
New funding to build farmworker housing in the Pacific Northwest, nationwide
Lauren Gallup, Northwest Public Broadcasting

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This story was originally published April 24, 2024, by Northwest Public Broadcasting.

Local housing leaders have a chance at USDA money for aid in easing the region’s housing crisis.

The Department of Agriculture is soliciting applications for funding to build farmworker housing nationwide.

In the Pacific Northwest, leaders hope the money can address gaps in farmworker housing. The Pacific Northwest is in a housing crisis and that impacts rural small businesses and agricultural producers, as well as farmworkers, said Helen Price Johnson, the Washington State Rural Development director for the USDA. 

“Agriculture is a big important part of our economy on both sides of the Cascades,” Price Johnson said. “The need to attract and retain good workers to help support our agricultural industry is vital to the whole economy of our state.”

This is a national pool of funding and there is no regional allocation for it. So, businesses and housing developers in the Northwest will have to compete with people from across the country for a chance at some of the $48 million earmarked for housing development. The earlier people apply, the better, Price Johnson said. Applications for new construction projects are due July 3.

About $43 million will help build off-farm housing in rural communities. Those dollars should produce 700 units, Price Johnson said. 

For the off-farm housing program, funds can come in the form of loans or grants. The other $5 million is set for on-farm housing. Those funds would come in the form of loans.

The USDA funding is flexible; it’s open to nonprofits, small businesses and tribal communities, as well as municipalities, Price Johnson said.

“The whole idea is to create decent, safe and sanitary affordable housing for farmworkers,” Price Johnson said. “We know that right now in Washington state there are 21 off-farm housing properties that have utilized USDA funding, about 483 households and we know that the need is probably much, much more than that.”

Needs in the Skagit

One region of Washington known for agriculture is the Skagit Valley. There are 882 farms in Skagit County, according to the 2022 Census of Agriculture. Agriculture, alongside the industries of forestry, fishing and hunting, account for 5% of the county’s gross domestic product, according to the Washington State Employment Security Department.

In general, this region has been struggling for years with a lack of housing. The county has one of the lowest vacancy rates in the state, at 3%, according to the Washington State Apartment Market Report from the University of Washington. 

“I don’t think that Skagit Valley is meeting the need for most of the categories of housing,” said Melanie Corey, executive director of the Housing Authority of Skagit County.

While Corey said there is not enough of every type of housing in the county, she said the low vacancy rate puts the biggest burden on the lowest income population, including farmworkers, who cannot compete with rising housing costs. 

“When the demand is so much greater than the supply, then people of lower incomes are going to have a harder time accessing the units when they become available,” Corey said.

The Housing Authority of Skagit County provides 98 units of permanent housing, specifically to farmworkers and their families with an additional 14 units seasonally. 

Keeping it going

While rural communities struggle to develop affordable housing, keeping the ones they do have running is costly. 

In Sedro-Wooley, one housing complex for farmworkers and their families will get much-needed repairs this fall through funding from the Washington State Department of Commerce

“We’ve been waiting for this funding and yes, planning to apply for it for quite some time,” said Steve Powers, the director of asset management for Catholic Community Services. 

That organization provides affordable housing across the state, including at La Casa de Santa Rosa, a more than 20-year-old property that houses farmworkers. The organization will receive $667, 010 to make significant improvements to La Casa de Santa Rosa, like swapping out gas appliances for electric ones.

“This grant funding is really filling a major hole for us on both of these properties to be able to bring them back to the standard where they’re going to continue to be safe, affordable housing for the residents for many years into the future,” Powers said. His organization is also receiving funding for an affordable housing complex in Lakewood. 

While Powers said farmworkers and their families deal with the same challenges everyone does when searching for housing, like cost, he said there are other barriers for their housing searches, such as cultural and language barriers and landlords who may discriminate against them.

“You can imagine that some farm workers work in the tulips during one part of the season and then move to berries and then there’s potatoes that are in the wintertime, and that’s part of the income verification that most landlords wouldn’t bother with,” Powers said.

That means typical restrictions around providing proof of income for a certain amount of time is harder to comply with. 

“We have worked with that population for enough years to understand that while their income is temporary or seasonal, we can show that they have enough income to support themselves,” Powers said.

— By Lauren Gallup, Northwest Public Broadcasting

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