Ag Today October 27, 2016

Farmworker housing or dead-end road? Man proposing controversial Acampo project wants to fulfill need

Posted: Thursday, October 27, 2016 12:04 am

By Christina Cornejo/News-Sentinel Staff Writer

For the people who work out in the fields, be they migrant workers or low-income citizens, there are few affordable options available for housing.

That’s why, when John Droge was thinking of what he could do with an investment property in an agricultural area, he thought it would be a good idea to develop a small cluster of farmworker housing units.

“The altruistic part of this appealed to me, and I found on a website for the county that the strategic plan outlined a need for this,” Droge said.

However, his plans for farmworker housing are facing major opposition from community members in Acampo who live near the proposed site. They do not want farmworker housing in their neighborhood, and believe it will bring more traffic in the area and lower their property values.

Droge never disclosed his plans to develop the property to anyone except a real estate agent and a contractor, yet word spread.

Soon hundreds came out in protest to a recent San Joaquin County Planning Commission meeting. An agenda item was going to grant a permit to use an old undeveloped road outlined in a map from 1912 for access to the property.

Droge needs that approval and the approval of building permits to move forward with his development plan. A decision was postponed to Nov. 3.

Droge believes the opposition comes from a lack of information, and that his goals are in line with his neighbors’ goals to enhance property values and have a good quality of life in the community.

“I’m trying to provide that for the people who feed us every day,” Droge said.

Droge plans to build four triplexes. Each triplex will have a pair of three-bedroom units and a single two-bedroom unit.

A 12-unit housing development or one with 36 or fewer workers is permitted by the state in areas zoned for agriculture. According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, 24,872 farmworkers were employed in the county as of 2012.

The units would be rented out to farmworkers, but as the future owner and manager of the housing development, Droge said he would prefer to deal with long-term tenants.

For migrant workers, constantly moving locations means it’s not practical to buy a home, and they might not be able to afford one. Seasonal workers tend to receive lower income than many other jobs.

They need to pay for housing while they work, and are in competition with other, often more stable low-income populations for affordable housing.

Farmworkers and their families often live in sub-standard conditions and overcrowded housing, according to the San Joaquin County Housing Element report from 2015. That report identifies a need for additional farmworker housing.

“These people are living in squalor and in converted garages,” Droge said. “There is a definite need.”

Currently, the Housing Authority of San Joaquin County operates year-round farmworker housing at Sartini Manor and Mokelumne Manor in Thornton. There are also three other centers operated by the Roberts Family Development Center, which include the two Artesi Migrant Centers in French Camp and the Harney Lane Migrant Camp just outside of Lodi. These account for 285 units of housing.

There are also a few rental assistance programs offered to farmworkers, which pay a portion of the rent to the landlord, provided the farmworkers earn a certain percentage of their income from agriculture.

About 300 people are waiting to get in these programs just from last year, according to Rehana Zaman of California Human Development and San Joaquin County WorkNet.

While housing is an issue for more than just farmworkers in the county, finding solutions for this particular group is difficult. Previous attempts to create new housing for farmworkers have been met with opposition.

Before the Harney Lane Migrant Camp was approved, many residents in the area east of Lodi fought its construction in 2002, claiming that the project would increase traffic, decrease property values, lead to drug use, drinking, gambling and prostitution, increase water use that would overdraft the aquifer, and possibly contaminate ground and surface water from sewage disposal.

A previous project was rejected by the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors in 1998 after residents appealed the approval.

A decision will be made on part of Droge’s proposal next week before heading to the Board of Supervisors.

Droge would like to continue with his plans for farmworker housing and says this is a long-term investment for him. He would like to enhance the property and also do some good, he said.