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Half Moon Bay Farmworker Housing Gains Approval After Push by Newsom

Tyche Hendricks

May 15

Ayudando Latinos A Soñar headquarters in Half Moon Bay July 25, 2023. (Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local)

Half Moon Bay planning commissioners approved a new apartment building for low-income senior farmworkers on Tuesday night, following a protracted debate that drew a strongly worded threat of legal action from Gov. Gavin Newsom over the delay.

The vote on the 40-unit affordable housing project, which took on urgency last year after a mass shooting by a disgruntled farmworker revealed workers’ poor living conditions, came near midnight, at the end of a five-hour meeting.

Belinda Hernández-Arriaga, the executive director of Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, a community organization serving the immigrant farmworkers of the San Mateo County coast, said she was thankful to the commission for moving the project forward.

“This vote is for one of the most vulnerable community groups,” said Hernández-Arriaga, whose organization, known as ALAS, paired with nonprofit developer Mercy Housing to develop the project proposal. “Hopefully, the next step with the city council will bring us all together to give the farmworkers the housing that they need.”

As the project was debated at three different hearings in three weeks, some commissioners and members of the public raised concerns that the five-story building was too tall and out of character with Half Moon Bay’s “small-town charm.”

However, in a letter following Newsom’s remarks, the head of the state’s Housing Accountability Unit told commissioners that state law limits their ability to reject affordable housing projects over questions of “character” if they meet local development standards.

In response to community concerns about height and density, Mercy Housing told the commission that it was willing to lower the building by a half story and reduce the number of two-bedroom apartments from eight to two.

Commissioners welcomed those offerings, but several expressed frustration that the building was still larger than the initial four-story proposal.

“This seems like a big pill to swallow because it definitely exceeds the scope of what anybody envisioned,” said Commissioner Rick Hernandez, who acknowledged that the state’s housing laws bound them to accept the project. “But we have an obligation.”

After a disgruntled farmworker shot and killed seven co-workers at two Half Moon Bay mushroom farms last year, Newsom and other elected officials toured the scenes and learned that workers had been living in squalid conditions, without heat or running water.

Local officials moved to find temporary lodging for the 38 survivors, inspect housing on other San Mateo County farms, and invest in critically needed permanent affordable housing for agricultural workers.

San Mateo County’s $100 million agriculture industry is centered around Half Moon Bay and depends on an estimated 2,000 farmworkers, who typically earn little more than minimum wage. Yet the county’s median home price is over $1.9 million, the most expensive in California. A 2016 survey found that the county needs at least 1,000 units of farmworker housing.

“This is not new to the coast. We know we need housing. Ten years ago, we knew that,” Half Moon Bay Mayor Joaquín Jiménez said. “We need to provide housing for low-income farm workers. We have to, and we want to.”

The apartment project, on a city-owned parcel at 555 Kelly Ave., has the support of city staff, who have been working with Mercy Housing and ALAS on plans since 2022. The building will also house a farmworker resource center run by ALAS.

In a recent memo to the commissioners, Mercy Housing and ALAS staff said that they have secured $8 million in federal, state and local funding for the project, which is expected to cost $42 million, according to Hernández-Arriaga. The planning commission’s approval will now allow them to apply for federal low-income housing tax credits this summer.

“It represents a lot of hope,” Hernández-Arriaga said. “For senior farmworkers having housing, living out their lives with dignity, being able to walk to church, to stores and the library. It’s a beautiful opportunity.”

If the commission’s vote is appealed, the project will go to the city council for consideration.

Meanwhile, another Half Moon Bay farmworker housing project — 47 manufactured homes for very low-income families, including those displaced from the mushroom farms — is due to break ground in the coming weeks on another plot of city land and could be ready for move-in early next year.

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