Civil rights icon Dolores Huerta advocated for passage with Gov. Newsom

Assemblyman Robert Rivas listens to Dolores Huerta speak at the event celebrating the new law. – Photo courtesy Robert Rivas’s office

By Marty Cheek

Elected officials and other South Valley leaders celebrated a new California law authored by Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Salinas) to provide quality, dignified housing for many of the 800,000 farmworkers throughout the state.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 1783, the Farmworker Housing Act of 2019, sponsored by the United Farm Workers and UFW Foundation. It helps both farmworkers and farmers by addressing the need for construction of farmworker housing throughout California, Rivas said at an event held in the Central Coast Farm Worker Center in Salinas Oct. 21.

Beginning Jan. 1, the law creates an opt-in, streamlined process to build housing on surplus agricultural land, sets quality standards to ensure the new housing is dignified and family friendly, and puts safeguards in place to protect the environment, he said.

The law eliminates some fees, as well as local and environmental restrictions. Land zoned for farming can be developed into worker housing as long as it meets basic environmental and safety guidelines. Projects must be inclusive and managed by a separate, nonprofit agency to eliminate potential conflicts of interest between workers and their employers.

Civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, who helped establish the UFW, attended the celebration and called the law a milestone in farmworker rights.

“Think about the contributions farmworkers give us every single day, putting the food on the table,” she said. “The farmworkers need to have housing. They deserve it.”

Rivas grew up in San Benito County in farmworking housing on Almaden Vineyards near Paicines.

“I lived there with my mom, my brother, Rick, and eight members of our family,” he said. “My grandfather worked in the fields in Almaden for over 30 years, my grandmother and great-grandmother worked in a tomato cannery in downtown Hollister to support our family. We all lived in a very small, two-room shelter that today would have been condemned.”

He described many farmworkers throughout California today facing a lack of housing options for themselves and their children. Many live in garages, in tents, in vans, in abandoned buildings and in trailers without air-conditioning or heat. Severe overcrowding is “the norm,” he said, describing multiple families living in a single apartment. In one case, 40 people were living in a single-family home with two bathrooms.

“Farmworkers make sure that places like Facebook and Google and Apple have endless supplies of food in their lavish cafeterias,” Rivas said. “But yet these same farmers can’t have a safe and decent roof over their heads. And that’s why for me, this year, this bill, this issue was our No. 1 priority.”

The new law is “not a silver bullet” but the first step to get the momentum going to addressing the farmworker housing shortage problem. Newsom was reluctant to approve the bill and waited until the last possible day to sign it, Rivas said. Huerta called him multiple times and showed up at his office to push him to make the decision in favor of the bill.

“This bill would not have been possible without her, the greatest fighter for Latino rights the world has ever seen,” Rivas told the crowd at the celebration.

Marty Cheek