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City, nonprofits seek farmworker housing in wake of shootings

In November 2021, 14 months before the horrific events of Jan. 23, 2023, the Half Moon Bay City Council held a public meeting to examine any and all options for fast-tracking low-income housing. The consensus from that night was that the city should focus primarily on two city-owned properties, 555 Kelly Ave. and 880 Stone Pine Rd, because it would be relatively less expensive and easier to build units on city land than as the result of private development. 

While the city government has been supportive of building for years, last year’s tragedy underscored the importance of housing projects and the need to get them done sooner rather than later in the interest of public safety. It also spurred action at the county level. Earlier this month, San Mateo County supervisors agreed to purchase 50 acres south of Half Bay with the intention of turning the former Bay City Flower Co. site into some kind of low-income housing development. 

Half Moon Bay’s plans for Stone Pine Cove, in particular, have been expedited in the aftermath of the shootings, as the five-acre property sits within a city-owned parcel that underwent extensive review for a corporation yard renovation project.

Last month, the city issued an Emergency Coastal Development Permit to speed the timeline, meaning the construction could begin this spring. Under normal circumstances and without an emergency permit, project bidding wouldn’t happen for another 16 months, and people would not be able to occupy the units until 2026, according to the city’s Community Development Director Jill Ekas. The city made the declaration based on three findings: there was a serious problem with farmworker housing in the area, there had been public outreach and meetings beforehand, and housing on the property was consistent with the city’s land use plan. 

A San Mateo County Farmworker Housing Safety Task Force was formed to inspect workforce housing after the shootings and has provided data that Half Moon Bay used to make the emergency declaration. In November 2023, the task force estimated that in the 90 housing units it has inspected, 68 farmworkers are living in conductions that do not meet minimum safety standards. It estimated that without new residential units, as many as 130 farmworkers could become homeless. 

Approximately 40 people were displaced from their farmworker housing after the shootings, according to a city staff report. It was reported that employees on one of the farms where the shootings occurred were living in trailers and shipping containers, some of which did not have adequate running water or cooking facilities. San Mateo County supervisors allocated $750,000 to put up the families in various single- and multi-family units in the area. But with that funding set to expire in the spring, Half Moon Bay officials are seeking to fast-track the construction of 46 low-income housing units at Stone Pine Cove and make it available for residency by spring 2025.

Staff says the city and philanthropic organizations and nonprofits will need $1 million to keep 19 households sheltered for one year before the new units are ready. 

After the shootings, San Mateo County applied for and received $5 million from the Joe Serna Jr. Farmworker Grant Program to pay for 28 units meant solely for those displaced individuals. The units will be built off-site and transported to Half Moon Bay. The county’s long-term goal is to develop a homeownership program to allow eligible Stone Pine Cove residents to work with the state and a nonprofit developer to put a down payment on the homes through a forgivable loan program.

Site amenities include public open spaces, two parking spaces per unit, and landscaping. In May, the county Board of Supervisors allocated $1 million in Measure K sales tax revenue for the Stone Pine Cove development. In November, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative awarded $1 million to San Mateo County for the project.

Eligibility for the remaining 18 units is still to be determined pending the funding source. Half Moon Bay Housing Coordinator Mike Noce noted that if the Serna funds are used, the units will be made available to low-income farmworkers with the same parameters as the first 28 units. If the county gets money elsewhere, low-income farmworkers would still be a target population, however, additional low-income households such as seniors and service workers would likely have the opportunity to apply to live in Stone Pine Cove. 

The other city-owned property slated for below-market-rate housing sits at 555 Kelly Ave. In July 2022, Mercy Housing and Ayudando Latinos A Soñar responded to the city’s request for a proposal to build housing for senior farmworkers, which currently is the site of an empty single-family home. The two organizations proposed to build a 59-foot structure with 40 units on land that has been vacant since the city bought it in 2017.

The property will be owned and managed by Mercy Housing, and ALAS has developed plans for a Farmworker Resource Center in the building. The city hosted two community meetings in March and May 2023 to seek feedback on the project design and future programming. ALAS has done its own outreach as well. 

The project plans have been reviewed by Half Moon Bay’s Architecture Advisory Committee, and Mercy expects to receive approval by the summer when the developer can start applying for funding. The units likely won’t be ready for occupancy until spring 2026. State Sen. Josh Becker spearheaded approval of $2 million from the state budget to help pay for the project. Less than a month after the shootings, Half Moon Bay loaned Mercy $1 million from its Affordable Housing Fund (with no interest) for predevelopment expenses. San Mateo County has also given Mercy $1.5 million from American Rescue Plan Act funds for pre-construction costs. A city staff report estimated the operation could cost ​​up to $500,000 per year, which covers a range of staff and administration expenses, utilities, maintenance and resident services. 

“As a senior project, the 555 Kelly development promises to provide stable housing and supportive resources to a vulnerable population of aging farmworkers,” Noce said. “The applicant team (Mercy and ALAS) is working closely with the city to complete entitlements in 2024.”

The architect for the new building is Van Meter Williams Pollack. The proposed five-story building exceeds the city’s zoning code, and the city plans to amend its code so the housing is consistent with its Land Use Plan. ALAS Executive Director Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga said she hopes the housing can be a model for future projects around California as it grapples with housing an aging and underpaid population. 

“We have to think about our senior farmworkers who have given their whole life for us here on the Coastside,” she said. “We have people who are 60, 70, 80 years old working in the field with no pathway for the retirement of where they’re going to live. And they deserve more than that.”

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