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After mass shooting that killed farmworkers, Gov. Newsom urges Half Moon Bay to stop delaying housing project

In an aerial view, greenhouses are seen at a farm where a mass shooting occurred in 2023 in Half Moon Bay. Seven people were killed at two separate farm locations that were only a few miles apart. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

By Salvador Hernandez

Staff Writer

May 9, 2024 6:17 PM PT

More than a year after the tragic mass shooting in Half Moon Bay, Gov. Gavin Newsom is urging city officials to stop delaying a plan to build housing for senior farmworkers in a beachside town where farm laborers have lived in “deplorable” conditions for years.

The plan, currently under review by the city’s planning commission, would result in 40 low-income units in a five-story building for retired and aging farmworkers, with a resource center in Half Moon Bay’s downtown.

But two recent marathon-long public meetings and changes to the project have raised concerns among worker advocates about the project’s future, and if the wealthy coastal town that rallied behind the low-income workers after the mass shooting will support their need for housing.

On Thursday, Newsom called for the Half Moon Bay Planning Commission to move forward with a decision on the project.

“Rather than do the right thing and approve badly needed housing for the workers who feed us, a 40-unit complex for low-income seniors is being stalled by local officials,” Newsom said in a statement. “This delay is egregious and jeopardizes the well-being of Californians.”

Newsom added that the state’s Housing Accountability Unit, a regulatory agency that enforces housing laws, is reviewing the city’s actions and would “take all necessary steps to hold Half Moon Bay accountable if the project does not move forward as state law requires.”

Seven people were killed during the mass shooting on Jan. 23, 2023, after Chunli Zhao, 67, took a handgun and began shooting his co-workers, according to prosecutors. Officials said the shooting was sparked over a $100 fine Zhao faced after a piece of equipment was damaged.

But the shooting, which occurred at two mushroom farms, also highlighted the living conditions of farmworkers in the wealthy enclave.

Some of the workers, and their families, appeared to be living in shipping containers that had been turned into homes. One county supervisor said the victims of the mass shooting were living in “deplorable, heartbreaking living conditions.”

The proposal would be the first major project the city has undertaken to provide housing for the farmworkers.

But after two long meetings that included hours of mostly supportive public comments, no decision has been made on the project.

Half Moon Bay Mayor Joaquin Jimenez, an activist for farmworkers, rejected the notion that the commission was delaying a decision but, instead, said the meeting was continued because of the number of people that had come to comment.

“There’s been a lot of time dedicated to listening to the community,” Jimenez said.

The city’s commission discussed the project April 23, and then held a special meeting April 30. It plans to meet again May 14.

Jimenez has long advocated for low-income housing in the city and resources for its farmworker community, but declined to comment directly on the current project to avoid influencing the planning commission’s decision.

Jimenez said he welcomed the governor’s support for farmworker housing, but said he hoped Newsom’s statement won’t divide the community.

“He needs to understand, he has to respect the process of the planning commission,” he said.

Part of reason the project has not yet moved forward, Jimenez said, is that changes were recently made that converted the project from a four-story building to five stories. The 40 units, which were originally studios, now also include one- and two-bedroom units.

“When you change the plan there’s more questions, there’s more concerns about the site that have to be asked,” he said. “That’s what’s been delaying the decision. The commission is taking the time and allowing the process.”

But others worry that the commissioners have been dragging their feet to make a decision, and falling short on promises that had been made to the community’s farmworkers.

“We’re confused as to why this isn’t passing,” said Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, founder and executive director of Ayudando Latinos a Soñar, a nonprofit advocacy group for farmworkers, which proposed the project with Mercy Housing, a nonprofit that works to provide low-income housing. “We were really surprised to see the pushback.”

Part of the concern has been that without local approval, developers for the project could miss the deadline to apply for federal affordable housing tax credits that will finance the project, possibly delaying it further.

After the planning commission takes a vote, the decision can then be appealed by a member of the community. That appeal, he said, would then go to the city council for a vote.

But some locals also raised concerns that the five-story building, located next to a Catholic church, would clash with the small-town appeal that many in the wealthy coastal town hope to maintain.

“This design doesn’t say this is a gateway to a small town — help me understand how this is a gateway to a small town,” Commissioner Rick Hernandez asked developers during one of the meetings, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “How does the building inform the character of Half Moon Bay? That is the fundamental issue the community is objecting to.”

Commissioners have also questioned the building’s height, and if it could be reduced by eliminating the resource center for residents.

In its current design, the building would be taller than the current tallest building in the town by 9 feet.

“They’re actually complaining about 9 feet,” Hernandez-Arriaga said. “Are they going to say no to senior farmworker housing over 9 feet?”

Advocates for farmworkers like Hernandez-Arriaga worry that the support that officials rallied behind is waning, and promises are being broken.

“I thought that [the Jan. 23, 2023, shooting] was going to be the wake-up call for us to finally get together and give [farmworkers] resources,” Antonio Lopez, mayor of East Palo Alto, said in an Instagram post in support of the project. “We’re here to house people and, not only that, housing people who literally bend their backs to give us produce, to give us food to put on the table.”

For Hernandez-Arriaga, approval of the project would not only provide housing for the aging farmworkers in the community, she said, but display a change in the community.

For years, farmworkers have lived in the shadows, away from the town’s high-end restaurants and multimillion-dollar homes.

The proposed housing would sit in downtown, in a commercial area and put farm workers in the center of the town.

“We want our farm workers to come out of the shadows,” she said. “The farmworkers are the community.”

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