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Half Moon Bay planning commission reluctantly OKs senior farmworker housing — with conditions

Commissioners were under pressure from Gov. Gavin Newsom, who threatened legal action if the project didn’t move forward

Trailers are seen from this drone view at California Terra Gardens in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. Farm worker Chunli Zhao, 66, was booked on seven counts of murder after the Jan. 23 mass shooting. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)


PUBLISHED: May 15, 2024 at 8:47 a.m. | UPDATED: May 15, 2024 at 5:47 p.m.


Facing the threat of legal action from Gov. Gavin Newsom, Half Moon Bay planning commissioners early Wednesday approved plans for a 40-unit, downtown apartment complex for senior farmworkers.


The move comes more than a year after a deadly shooting in the coastal community pulled back a curtain on farmworkers’ desperate living conditions.


Commissioners aired their concerns over the height, traffic implications and design of the project at 555 Kelly Ave. over several hours in a meeting that extended past midnight before eventually approving a slightly shorter height than had previously been proposed. The commissioners were under pressure from Newsom, who last week said the state would “take all necessary steps to hold Half Moon Bay accountable.” This was the commission’s third hearing on the project.


New housing for farmworkers is proposed for this property on the 500 block of Kelly Avenue in Half Moon Bay, Calif., photographed on Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

New housing for senior farmworkers is proposed for this property at 555 Kelly Avenue in Half Moon Bay, Calif., photographed on Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Coastal farmworkers and Latino advocacy groups rallied behind the proposed apartments, saying that housing for older farmworkers is desperately needed, especially after last year’s deadly shooting.


That shooting left seven workers dead across two farms where employees lived in tarp-covered shacks and flimsy trailers that have since been condemned, with the workers relocated to temporary housing.


Plans for the project predate the shooting — it was first proposed as a four-story building in 2022 by nonprofit developer Mercy Housing and ALAS, a nonprofit supporting Latinos in Half Moon Bay.


But after meetings with farmworker advocates and city staff earlier this year, Mercy Housing swapped out some of the studios for larger one- and two-bedroom units. That pushed the building up another story — a move that ended up becoming one of the primary concerns of planning commissioners, though the commission ultimately approved the five-story design.


“I feel uncomfortable saying yes to five stories when it is easily the largest building in Half Moon Bay, and it doesn’t need to be,” said Commissioner David Gorn.


Commissioners had plenty of suggestions for how the developers could shave off space, such as by reducing the common space and communal kitchen, where ALAS plans to provide one meal per day to residents.


“Can’t you take them somewhere so they are out of the complex?” Commissioner Hazel Joanes asked. “Wouldn’t that be better for their mental health?”


“The idea is to get them out into the community — to get out of isolation,” ALAS executive director Belinda Hernandez Arriaga responded.


The continued demands for concessions frustrated project supporters such as Jordan Grimes, a lead member of the pro-housing organization Peninsula for Everyone.


“Here you have a project that was designed by and for a community — in particular, its most vulnerable members,” Grimes told this news organization. “Instead you have a body of unelected commissioners engaged in discussion stretched over weeks to decide what is and isn’t appropriate for a community who has already told you what they need.”


Nonprofit developer Mercy Housing is applying to build a 40-unit, 100% affordable housing development at 555 Kelly Avenue to house Half Moon Bay farmworkers, but it's facing anti-development sentiment from neighbors in the coastal city.

Nonprofit developer Mercy Housing is applying to build a 40-unit, 100% affordable housing development at 555 Kelly Avenue to house Half Moon Bay farmworkers, but it’s facing anti-development sentiment from neighbors in the coastal city.

Despite the commission’s approval, the project can still be appealed by any Half Moon Bay resident to the City Council, which will have the final say over the project’s fate. Anticipating an appeal, the commissioners recommended that the City Council revert to the original project — with 31 studios and nine one-bedroom units — and consider removing some of the community space and offices on the first floor, as well as some of the parking, which contributed to the building’s taller height.


Throughout the meeting, commissioners expressed frustration with the state’s density bonus law, which allowed the developer to propose a building taller than typically allowed by Half Moon Bay local zoning because every unit would be considered affordable to low-income households.


“It is a sledgehammer to local control,” said Commissioner Rick Hernandez.


But advocates such as Grimes say local control is exactly the problem.


“This project highlights the need for the state laws that we have and to ensure that these local municipal bodies can’t stall or stop projects like this one that are clearly needed,” Grimes said.

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