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‘This delay is egregious’: Newsom threatens Half Moon Bay with legal action for holding up farmworker housing

Mass shooting last year exposed deplorable living conditions at some local farms

FILE – California Gov. Gavin Newsom announces a proposal to build 1,200 small homes across the state to reduce homelessness in Sacramento Calif., on March 16, 2023. Newsom signed two laws on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023, to fast-track low-income housing on surplus land owned by nonprofit colleges and religious institutions and to streamline the housing permitting process. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

By ETHAN VARIAN | | Bay Area News Group and KATE TALERICO | | Bay Area News Group

PUBLISHED: May 9, 2024 at 3:15 p.m. | UPDATED: May 9, 2024 at 3:54 p.m.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is threatening Half Moon Bay with potential legal action if city officials continue delaying approval of a 40-unit farmworker housing project more than a year after seven local farmworkers were killed in a mass shooting that exposed deplorable living conditions at some farms along the coast.

Last week, the city’s planning commission, citing concerns about the project’s design, voted to push back a decision on an affordable housing complex at 555 Kelly Ave. The developer has said that if project plans aren’t finalized soon, it could mean losing out on the public funding needed to start construction on the $43 million project.

“This delay is egregious and jeopardizes the well-being of Californians,” Newsom said in a statement Thursday.

The governor, who’s made boosting housing construction a top priority, said the state’s Housing Accountability Unit — formed in 2021 to crack down on local officials who skirt state housing laws — is “reviewing the city’s actions and will take all necessary steps to hold Half Moon Bay accountable if the project does not move forward.”

During a public hearing last week, commissioners said that while they support building more farmworker housing, they needed additional time to ensure the project fits within the city’s state-mandated plan for development along the coast. Among the main concerns are the project’s height and parking plans.

In an interview Thursday, Mike Ferreira, a former Half Moon Bay mayor who served on the planning commission in the 2000s, said commissioners have had little chance to discuss the project after hours of public comment at recent meetings, including from dozens of farmworker advocates who showed up in support.

“Why wouldn’t they be given the time to discuss all the options?” asked Ferreira, noting the city donated the land for the complex. “This project has been in the works for the past couple of years. Suddenly, it draws the governor’s attention if there’s a one-week spillover when you have years in the process.”

The January 2023 mass shooting in Half Moon Bay shined a light on the uninhabitable conditions farmworkers endure throughout San Mateo County, bringing a sense of urgency to an issue for which activists have long sought attention. The tarp-covered shacks and flimsy trailers at the two farms where the shooting occurred — Concord Farms and California Terra Garden — have been condemned, and workers relocated to temporary housing.

A worker who lived on one of the farms, 67-year-old Chunli Zhao, is accused of killing fellow farmworkers and is now facing seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. He pleaded not guilty to all charges in February.

Plans for the 555 Kelly complex for senior farmworkers predates the mass shooting. In 2022, nonprofit developer Mercy Housing and ALAS, a nonprofit that supports Latinos in Half Moon Bay, presented the initial plans for the project, which has since increased from four to five stories.

Commissioners asked whether the developer could move parking space underground, but Mercy responded that it would be too costly. The developer also said that requests for changes to office space at the complex were a nonstarter since some of the project’s public funding is contingent upon providing on-site property management and support services.

Mercy currently has the majority of funding lined up for the project, but it’s also relying on federal low-income tax credits to complete the build. The developer must get the city’s sign-off on the project to apply for those subsidies, and the complex could be delayed a year if the developer misses the July 2 application deadline.

The planning commission’s decision comes as the state has passed a slew of laws in recent years to speed up the local approval process for new projects in hopes of alleviating California’s chronic housing shortage.

However, not all of the streamlining legislation applies to sensitive coastal areas, which are tightly regulated by the California Coastal Commission. A controversial state law set to go into effect at the start of next year will loosen some development restrictions for affordable housing projects in coastal areas.

The governor’s office did not say what laws the planning commission could be violating in waiting to approve the project. But it noted the Housing Accountability Unit has worked with local governments to approve “more than 23,000 units of housing that otherwise may not have been built.”

Last year, the unit also worked with the state attorney general to sue Huntington Beach for failing to develop a state-mandated plan to meet its future homebuilding targets. In March, a judge stripped the city of some of its authority to block new housing.

The Half Moon Bay Planning Commission is set to discuss the farmworker housing project next at a meeting on Tuesday.

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