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Farmworker housing gets OK in Half Moon Bay

Planning Commission decision comes after 3 public hearings

Rendering of the proposed senior farmworkers housing at 555 Kelly Ave. in Half Moon Bay.

After five hours of discussion Tuesday night, Half Moon Bay’s Planning Commission approved a senior farmworker housing project that garnered statewide spotlight in recent weeks during a three-week discussion process.

Notably, Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened the approval holdup with legal action, calling delays “egregious,” and a May 10 letter from California’s Department of Housing and Community Development warned commissioners that previously-voiced concerns around the “character” of the project didn’t warrant a rejection.

But as of May 14, the development has been approved and awaits a final vote from the Half Moon Bay City Council, although qualifications have been made — co-applicant Mercy Housing acquiesced around half a story of height on the previously five-story structure at commissioners’ request.

It also agreed to “evaluate the feasibility” of changing the 40-unit building’s apartment mix from six two-bedroom units to two and increasing the percentage of studio apartments.

The proposed development at 555 Kelly Ave. had been in the works since 2022, months before a deadly shooting at a mushroom farm in Half Moon Bay took the lives of seven farmworkers and subsequent investigation revealed squalid and untenable farmworker living conditions in the area.

While plans for the senior farmworker housing project began before the tragedy, community revelations around a dire need for livable farmworker housing post-shooting did serve as a motivator to pursue work on it and other developments, including 46 units of affordable housing at 550 Stone Pine Road that recently received $6 million from the county.

Commissioner Rick Hernandez said during the meeting that state density bonus laws, which allows the 100% affordable housing project to exceed local height and density restrictions, are “a sledgehammer to local control,” but the project applicants were in conformance with policy.

“This seems like a big pill to swallow because it definitely exceeds the scope of what anybody envisioned,” he said.

The Planning Commission put three conditions of approval on the project, Hernandez said, including Mercy Housing’s own adjustments and direction that city staff work with Mercy Housing and co-applicant Ayudando Latinos A Soñar — a Latino cultural arts and programming organization — to “polish” the design.

Traffic and parking concerns around the development and a nearby intersection, which have been an ongoing topic of discussion for commissioners at all three public hearings, must also be addressed by the city, commissioners directed.

The Planning Commission also advised the City Council to revert the project back to its original four-story design and minimize first-floor office space and a planned ALAS-run resource center, which would be complete with a kitchen and community room. That advisory is not legally binding.

Dr. Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, founder and executive director of Ayudando Latinos a Soñar, pushed back on suggestions from commissioners that the resource center design and kitchen was excessive given seniors would have in-unit kitchens.

“The goal of ALAS and the group that we are doing is to create an opportunity to celebrate [farmworkers] every day,” she said. “That celebration looks like a team that is wrapping services around, that is welcoming them with a warm meal, welcoming them with food, and they’re not alone.”

Mercy Housing believes the proposal it put together — without a reversal to the original design — is best suited to serve the needs of the community, but were grateful the project is moving forward, Mercy Associate Director Kelly Hollywood said.

“We had tremendous community support to be able to come together and move development forward,” she said. “Approval from the commission at this time gets us one step closer to that process. We’re eager and can’t wait to get started on doing the real work on serving community members.”

Land use permits approved by the Planning Commission at its May 14 meeting will allow Mercy Housing to apply for federal low-income tax credits, needed to fulfill the development’s $43 million price tag.

The city should make it a priority to harmonize state density bonus laws with its local coastal land use plan to retain autonomy when building affordable housing for farmworkers and community members at large, Hernandez emphasized after the meeting.

“When you say ‘I want farmworker housing but ...’ it’s a dog whistle for NIMBYs and YIMBYs. That is an us versus them narrative,” he said. “In Half Moon Bay, we are building farmworker housing and we are protecting coastal resources. You can have your cake and eat it too, you just have to put in the work.”

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