CIRS Blog about Rural California

Blueprint for Change: Solving Housing Problems in Farmworker Communities

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California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) created Rural Justice Forums in response to a need for further evidence and literature to support many of the issues CRLA staff witness in the field every day. CRLA attorney, Ilene Jacobs, Director of Litigation, Advocacy and Training, saw a lack of research and analysis of an underlying problem demonstrated by her cases:  that living in some of the worst housing conditions in the United States has a severe impact on the physical and mental health of California farmworkers.

“Farmworkers and their families in rural California and throughout this country often are forced to live in the most despicable and challenging conditions. They sleep in onion fields, live in caves dug into canyons bathe in irrigation ditches, huddle under tarps or find refuge in cars, tool sheds, barns and in river banks, face rent gouging for substandard and dangerous housing units, rent rooms, in dilapidated old motels, face housing discrimination because of who they are, what they look like or they language they speak, and suffer retaliatory eviction and firing should they have the temerity to complain about such third world conditions in the richest nation in the world.”

Entire communities in isolated rural areas in California do not have clean water or functional sewer systems, and live in housing that is so structurally dilapidated that it is dangerous.  Jacobs decided that more evidentiary information was needed about the effect of this substandard housing on the health of farmworkers and their families.

This need for more research, developed the “First Rural Justice Forum on Farmworker Housing Conditions and Related Health Disparities,” convened by CRLA  on October 27, 2008 as a literature review and call for more research.  The forum’s resulting paper: (Un)safe at Home: The Health Consequences of Sub-standard Farm Labor Housing was peer reviewed and released in June of 2010.

CRLA continues to bring together experts from diverse disciplines to focus on specific issues and lead the way on new research to support evidence-based advocacy. The Rural Justice Forums (RJFs) are organized by CRLA and combine workshops, symposia and meetings that bring together legal and advocacy professionals to emphasize policy issues.

Housing advocates, health advocates, researchers, lawyers, public health professionals, legislative representatives and non-profit community housing developers met on October 4, 2011 to discuss and identify improvements that can be made to housing conditions for farmworkers. Non-profits focusing on local regional and statewide issues were represented as were local, state and federal governmental agencies. Participants were from varied communities in California, New Mexico, Texas and North Carolina.

The goal of the meeting was to create a blueprint for change in farmworker housing.  Working groups identified priorities for policy, advocacy and research.


Groups identified the following policy priorities for improving farmworker housing.

  1. Enforcement that emphasizes repair and avoids closure and displacement.
  1. Consistent regulation among agencies at all levels.
  1. Housing eligibility that ensures equal access to quality housing regardless of status.
  1. Increasing affordable housing supply.
  1. Establishing a funding base and network of researchers to assess needs and conditions of farmworker housing.


The following advocacy priorities were identified.

  1. Increase effective litigation
  1. Provide training and outreach to stakeholders on housing conditions and health outcomes.
  1. Include farmworkers in process and problem solving to influence change.
  1. Identify and frame the need for decent farmworker housing as a community issue.
  1. Ensure that farmworkers are not retaliated against for reporting substandard housing conditions.
  1. Identify a permanent funding source for code enforcement, maintenance and construction of new housing.
  1. Increase collaboration between advocates, governments, agencies, health care providers and farmworkers.
  1. Develop and enforce a farmworker bill of rights.


A number of research priorities were identified.  They are summarized below.

  1. Identify current housing needs and conditions
  1. Broaden the understanding of the connection between housing quality and health outcomes.
  1. Survey employers on the barriers to providing quality housing
  1. Standardize tools and methods.
  1. Measure health status changes with new housing.
  1. Analyze the special needs of migrant and seasonal workers.
  1. Analyze the costs of substandard housing on health care, enforcement and the educational system.


Several overarching needs and challenges arose from the meeting.  Research needs that were identified included a need for reliable data sources that can be updated regularly and development of common tools for gathering information in various geographic regions.   There was a clear message that increasing supply and enforcement that leads to repairs rather than eviction is essential, that awareness of the connection between housing quality and health needs to be increased, and finally that overarching challenges include the seasonal, migratory nature of farm work, the response to immigration status of some workers and the fact that there needs to be better data collection and surveillance of farmworker housing and health across the board.

Please download the PDF of the full meeting report for more detailed information on the meeting and other central themes, points of emphasis and next steps and strategies for change that were discussed.

To download please click on the link for the CRLA website, scroll down to "Past RJF Events" and then click on the link titled Farmworker Housing Advocacy Blueprint for Change.

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CRLA serves low-income individuals residing in over 22 California counties. As rural areas and small cities of California continue to change, so does our outreach and service to diverse communities. Today, CRLA serves a wide array of clients, while maintaining specialized programs that focus on services for farmworker populations. CRLA clients also include individuals with disabilities, immigrant populations, school children, lesbian/gay/bisexual and transgender populations, seniors and individuals with limited English proficiency.


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