CIRS Blog about Rural California

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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.”

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There are many heat stress prevention strategies for farmworkers that focus on correcting either individual behaviors (e.g., avoiding caffeinated beverages and bulky sweatshirts) or workplace conditions (e.g., providing shade and regular break periods). Yet, few heat stress-specific health plans take into consideration the conditions of the built and natural environment that farmworkers are returning to at the end of a long day in the fields.

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For decades, the rural housing program has been a mainstay of national and state efforts to improve the living conditions of low-income people in the U.S. At the federal level, Congress adopted a series of initiatives during the 1930s to stabilize rural families on family farms and rehouse the Depression-era rural poor, which laid the groundwork for a national rural housing program. At the state level, since the mid-1970s, the state of California has operated programs targeted specifically to small towns and rural communities and amelioration of the dismal living conditions of farm workers and Native Americans.

At the forefront of these efforts in California has been a strong network of community-based, nonprofit and public organizations and agencies located throughout the state and delivering a variety of housing services. These services include: acquisition, rehabilitation, construction, and operation of rental housing for low-income families, the elderly and disabled, homeless, and farm workers; construction supervision and loan packaging for families participating in owner-build programs; rehabilitation and retrofits of existing owner-occupied homes; installation of sewer, water, and other infrastructure improvements; provision of supportive services; and foreclosure prevention intervention, homeownership counseling, financial literacy training, and asset-building. These services have been funded by an array of federal, state, and local government housing and community development programs, lending institutions, such as banks and nonprofit financial intermediaries, private investors, and others.

The California Coalition for Rural Housing (CCRH) was created in 1976 to represent the interests of this network of rural affordable housing providers and their clients and ensure continuing funding and supportive land use and planning laws. CCRH is the oldest statewide affordable housing coalition in the U.S. Our members include some of the oldest nonprofit housing development organizations in the country, groups that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s to provide decent and affordable homes for California farm workers and other rural poor. They include the largest producers of mutual self-help housing in the country, a precursor of Habitat for Humanity. They also include some of the largest operators of farm labor housing for permanent and migrant workers.

It is this highly successful network of sophisticated, mission-driven, rural housing providers that is currently seriously threatened by shrinking funding resources. The threats are manifold. But, with the threats come several new opportunities.

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