Unlivable: How Texas fails farmworkers

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How Texas fails farmworkers
Texas spends next to nothing to ensure decent housing for the farmworkers who help power an $8 billion industry

Lee la versión en español de esta investigación aquí.

The farmworkers arrived in the spring of 2013 to harvest green chiles for $8 an hour and the promise of temporary housing in a building near the fields.

But when they showed up at the farm just south of Van Horn, operated by AJK Enterprises, workers said they had no alternative but to live in nearby shipping containers that lacked screens or ventilation, to shower with a bucket of cold water and to urinate and defecate in the brush.
Some workers slept “in their cars or outside on the boards laid on top of car tires,” according to a lawsuit filed against the farm operators and settled last year.

Under state law, facilities intended to house migrant farmworkers — defined as agricultural laborers who leave their primary residence to follow the harvest from place to place — must be inspected and licensed, ensuring they meet a minimum standard of cleanliness and safety.

The law is supposed to protect workers and their families, many of whom have limited command of English and little time or money to file complaints or find alternative housing, from being exploited by employers or farm labor contractors who force them to live in filth and squalor.

Yet a four-month American-Statesman investigation has revealed that in Texas many housing facilities elude the reach of the state’s limited inspection effort.
Even when state regulators have received reports of deplorable conditions, and inspectors verify deficiencies — as they eventually would at the Van Horn chile farm — they don’t penalize offenders.

Among the Statesman’s findings:

  • The state agency responsible for inspecting migrant farmworker housing, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, hasn’t levied a single enforcement action against operators of migrant farmworker facilities, even after they fail inspections. State law spells out a high threshold for enforcement action, resulting in zero fines since at least 2005.
  • Because they don’t actively look for them, Texas regulators have failed to uncover numerous unlicensed housing facilities and bring them into compliance. The result: an estimated nine in 10 migrant farmworkers lack access to licensed facilities.
  • While other agricultural states spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure safe and sanitary conditions at facilities for migrant farmorkers, Texas lawmakers provide no funding for the program. Last year, the housing department spent less than $2,500. Inspections are conducted by manufactured housing division workers.
  • Throughout the Panhandle and West Texas, motels often serve as housing of last resort for farmworkers. Yet Texas appears to have surveyed only a single motel since 2001. Other states, such as Indiana and Michigan, regularly inspect motels that house farmworkers.

“We have an agency that doesn’t go out and look, that doesn’t catch people out of compliance, so there is no incentive even to get a permit.” said Daniela Dwyer, head of the farmworker program at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc, which represented farmworkers in Van Horn. The state housing agency inspected 41 facilities in 2015, with a capacity for about 3,750 workers and family members. More than half of that capacity, however, is in two apartment complexes in the Rio Grande Valley, where most farmworkers have permanent housing rather than the temporary, seasonal accommodations the state law envisioned.

That means only a tiny fraction of the state’s transitory farmworker population found room at a state licensed and inspected facility.

Estimates of the number of such workers vary widely: a 2012 consultant’s estimate of 34,000 only counts farmworkers in 49 of the state’s 254 counties and is considered low by advocate groups.
The National Center for Farmworker Health estimates Texas has more than 200,000 agricultural workers (455,000 counting family members), not including those who work off the books.

Joe Garcia, executive director of the state agency’s Manufactured Housing Division, called the larger task of finding unlicensed farmworker housing in Texas nearly impossible, adding that inspectors “get a lot done” with no funding. “As critical and important as it is, it’s very difficult to be proactive,” he said.

“Housing units potentially serving migrant labor are typically isolated and far out of sight from the highway and located on private property, which inhibits further inquiry,” added agency spokesman Gordon Anderson.

But advocates point out that the agency also doesn’t try that hard. Dwyer said her organization finds problem housing by going to places where farmworkers gather, such as food pantries, churches, and laundrymats or contacting Head Start providers and migrant health providers outreach the housing department does not perform.

One sign: State officials were unaware of any complaints from the public regarding farmworker housing, considered key in locating unlicensed housing. States such as Wisconsin employ full-time outreach workers who forward problems to inspectors.

And critics say the agency doesn’t check up on facilities that drop out of its licensing program. Roman Ramos, who conducts farmworker outreach for RioGrande Legal Aid, said that in 2015 he saw at least two housing facilities with expired licenses in operation.

A Statesman review of inspection reports also revealed lax enforcement when inspectors discovered problems, a finding that has already led to changes within the agency.

After the newspaper inquired about a facility in the South Plains that received passing grades in 2014 and 2015 despite having the same five deviations, (including unsanitary mattresses, screens in poor condition and lack of first aid kits), state officials said they would stop issuing licenses based on promises to fix issues. “I did tell (inspectors) we needed to discontinue the practice,” Garcia said. “As a general rule it’s better to say everything has to be checked off the list.”

Garcia defended the lack of lack of fines and penalties, saying overly aggressive enforcement could cause growers to close down facilities, resulting in even fewer housing options.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., said the state must do more to find unlicensed facilities and suggested implementing stiff fines for operators who fail to register. The Brownsville Democrat said the current level of enforcement “questions the state’s resolve.”

“I am truly shocked,” Lucio said. “It is clear the licensing and inspection system needs to be improved.”

The Van Horn lawsuit was settled for undisclosed terms. In court filings, the company said housing was made available to the workers, but that nobody was forced to accept it, and the shipping containers were not offered up as dwellings.

Even though AJK Enterprises admitted to housing farmworkers without a license, state regulators took no follow-up enforcement action. In March 2014, inspectors found nine deficiencies, but two months later it passed and today remains on the state-licensed migrant housing list.

Skip interactive »

Interactive: Migrant labor camp inspections

Since taking over the migrant farmworker housing inspection program a decade ago, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs has conducted more than 300 inspections of a mostly stable group of housing providers. Inspection reports show some facilities have had recurring problems, though none have resulted in enforcement action. Just a small fraction of the state’s migrant farmworkers have access to licensed facilities.

Choose a year to show inspections for that time period. Click on a list item to zoom to the facility on the map, or click on the map to highlight the report in the list.

Source: Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs

A room at the Airport Motel and Apartments in Plainview rented by a migrant family of four.

History of lax enforcement

In June 2012, Ernesto Garza, 35, left his home in the Rio Grande Valley town of Pharr and traveled 300 miles to the border city of Eagle Pass for the summer watermelon packing season. But when he saw the house his employers had arranged for him and his family of seven, he was disgusted.

"At night you could hear rats scratching up against the wall," he said.

The house had holes in the kitchen walls, black mildew or mold in the bathroom and rotting floorboards family members feared they would fall through, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this year. Garza said his then 4-year-old son developed a “nasty” rash due to flood-damaged carpeting in the house.

The house was not inspected by state officials, even though attorneys said it fit the definition of migrant farmworker housing and so should have been regulated. “I never knew that was a requirement,” Garza said.

When he complained to his employer, he said he was told to find alternative housing himself. But with his long work hours, unfamiliarity with the city and lack of money for a deposit, he was unsuccessful.

Decent housing is often hard to come by for migratory farmworkers, especially in rural areas with little infrastructure. A 2012 survey found affordable rental housing in agricultural areas is at 98 percent capacity.

At the same time, advocates say, migrant farmworkers aren’t quick to complain. “For the most part, they don’t like to create waves or draw attention to themselves,” said Kathy Tyler, who directs farmworker housing programs for Motivation, Education and Training, Inc. Many, like Garza, are unaware that state law requires their housing to be inspected and licensed.

Texas began inspecting farmworker camps in 1971, part of a wave of state reforms following revelations of horrific living conditions and a growing farmworker rights movement. Yet farm worker advocates have long complained the program was ineffective.

State regulators have “been extremely lenient with Texas growers, canners, and cotton ginners over the past 5 years,” researcher David Winn wrote in a 1977 report. “No fines have ever been given and no one has ever gone to jail.”

Prior to 2005, migrant housing oversight was handled by the Department of State Health Services, which advocates say was ill-equipped to handle a housing inspection and compliance program. Conditions at the licensed facilities at the time were often appalling, recalled John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.

“Showers with thick gray mold, absence of working locks, broken windows,” he said. “It surpassed the stuff I had seen in the worst public housing developments.”

In 2005, the program was moved to the state’s housing department, which with its network of field inspectors who looked at manufactured houses across the state, seemed to be a better fit. “They said they could cross-train those guys and do these inspections,” Henneberger said.

State officials also hoped the move would accomplish another key goal: find unlicensed facilities and bring them into compliance.

The agency outlined an outreach effort in the Rio Grande Valley and the Panhandle to inform migrant farmworkers of their right to inspected and licensed housing. It said it would contact advocacy groups to learn of “known or suspected facilities that are operating without required licenses.”

Yet the plan never resulted in complaints that could lead inspectors to problem properties.

Today, there is no budget for migrant housing outreach, spokesman Gordon Anderson said. “But our ears are always open if anyone does come to us.”
Other states do a better job of finding unlicensed facilities, thus creating opportunities to fix them. Florida received 77 complaints in 2014. Michigan investigated 23 complaints in 2015. Wisconsin employs a dedicated staff to find problem properties.

By comparison, since 2005 the Texas agency has limited itself to conducting inspections of a mostly stable group of housing providers, many of them cotton ginning co-operatives in the Panhandle and regional housing authorities. “These are people who voluntarily go through the licensing process and make themselves available for inspections,” Anderson said. “They tend to be the good guys.”

Ramos said that leaves entire agricultural regions — such as the area from Pearsall to Uvalde in South Texas — “pretty much off the radar.”

A growing number of farmers are using temporary foreign guest workers under the H2A visa program, whose housing is inspected by the Texas Workforce Commission under federal rules and with federal money. But such workers make up a small percentage of farmworkers in the state.

Lucio, who co-sponsored the 2005 bill that moved inspection authority to the state housing department, said the agency should have alerted lawmakers that it wasn’t able to conduct regular outreach to the farmworker community. “If the agency doesn’t have resources for outreach, it needs to inform the Legislature,” he said.

“It’s not a nice place or anything, but it’s OK for the season. If we have any problems they fix them right away," she said.
-- Nora Castillo, 31, of Beaumont, in her family's state inspected unit in O'Donnell.

'Sewage on the surface'

Sitting in the flatlands near the intersection of West Texas and the Panhandle, tiny O’Donnell (pop. 831) has centered on agriculture, particularly cotton, since its founding in 1910 by a group of railroad promoters. Much of today’s field labor force lives in a series of squat, straw-colored buildings made of corrugated metal and operated by the local farmer’s cooperative.

Once a year, a state inspector arrives to conduct a 78-point inspection meant to ensure that bathrooms, bedrooms and kitchens are sanitary and safe.

Nora Castillo, 31, has been coming to the O’Donnell facility with her family from Beaumont since she was 14. In the late summer of 2015, six adults and children lived in her two-bedroom metal-walled unit that she said cost $50 a week. “It’s not a nice place or anything, but it’s OK for the season,” she said. “If we have any problems they fix them right away.” She liked the newly installed stove in the kitchen.

Yet inspection reports show that conditions at the O’Donnell facility, with a capacity for more than 70 residents, have caught regulators’ attention in the past. A 2013 inspection report noted “sewage on the surface,” unsanitary sleeping arrangements, and bathrooms that “need work.”

State officials took no action against the facility; instead, an inspector noted the facility’s manager “would call me as soon as it was all done.” Two months later, the inspector visited the facility again and declared “all items passed.”

The following year, however, an inspector noted more problems, including unsanitary mattresses, cramped sleeping arrangements, and poor screens and lack of first aid kits. He still gave the facility a passing grade.

In 2015, an inspector noted the same problems, but once again passed the facility. Garcia, of the state housing agency, said the inspectors told him they returned to the facility to make sure the changes were made, however, records make no reference to another trip.

Glenn Ivins, manager of the labor camp, said he spends about $12,000 annually on upkeep. “I know that this facility is old and needs some work but the people that stay here need to help out and take care of it while staying here,” he said.

The Statesman’s analysis of state reports show it’s not unusual for housing inspectors to give passing grades even when they find so-called deviations. The reports show about a dozen instances when facilities were re-licensed despite the problems uncovered by inspectors.

In some cases, inspectors noted that facility operators had pledged to fix them, but there was no evidence of a re-inspection.

“As a regulatory agency our approach is educational and safety,” Garcia said. “An actual violation would be if a facility weren’t licensed and refused to be licensed and kept going, that would be a violation of the law and I’m sure TDHCA would pursue that. We’ve never had that before that I know of.”

The father of the family of four at the Airport Motel uses a sheet to close off the small kitchen from the one room apartment they are renting. August 2015.

Last chance motels

The Airport Motel and Apartments sits on the outskirts of Plainview, just across the street from the Hale County Airport and in the heart of the South Plains agricultural region between Lubbock and Amarillo. Among the residents on an autumn weekday was a farmworker who had recently arrived with his wife and two small children after he lost his job in the oil patch.

The man, who said he fears state child protection workers will remove his children if they learn about the state of the rooms inside, opened his door on the condition that his name not be published.

A single bed takes up almost the entire room. A hanging blanket acts both as a wall between the room and a small kitchen area and a barrier to the stench of sewage wafting through a bathroom window. Bottles of bug spray are littered around the room a necessary weapon, the family says, against a cockroach infestation.

A small window air conditioning unit groans against the September afternoon heat. The family sleeps with the front door open because it gets too hot at night. Rent is $480 a month.

“This is not where we want to be,” the man says. “But we don’t have any choice.”

Advocates say that during the harvest season cheap motels throughout the Panhandle and West Texas agricultural zone increasingly are filled with migrant farmworkers unable to find regular housing. The arrangements can cost workers more than renting a home, apartment or trailer and can lack basic necessities for long term living, such as kitchens and laundry facilities.

State standards on shower and laundry facilities help keep workers clean before handling fruits and vegetables, advocates say, noting that unsanitary housing also has the potential to become a food safety issue.

Yet Texas officials don’t regularly inspect motels that serve as farmworker housing, as some other agricultural states do. Records show that in 2015, housing inspectors licensed what appears to be their first motel since 2001, a newly remodeled facility in Denver City, near the New Mexico state line.

Garcia said enforcing licensing rules at motels is difficult, noting that even if inspectors hear of a motel where migrants might be living, owners can sidestep responsibility — even in cases where it is common knowledge the residents are temporary farmworkers. “Someone in that situation would say ‘we just rent the rooms, we don’t know the people that are here,’” he said.

Advocates say it’s a question of priorities.

“Every state is challenged with resources, but some have a lot of people who go out and look for violations,” Dwyer said. "We realize this could be an unfunded mandate, but the law is the law.”

Part 2: Out of room

The farm labor camp that once housed migrant workers in Floydada, Texas, shut down over a decade ago. Nothing has taken its place.

Texas lacks housing for tens of thousands of farmworkers, and does less than other states to build new facilities

An hour before dawn, the pickup trucks start arriving at the Allsup’s convenience store in downtown Plainview as a steady stream of field workers file in to buy coffee, bags of ice and Monster energy drinks. From here, work crews will fan out around Hale County and the South Plains to pull weeds from cotton fields, level rows of millet and ensure harvests in one of the nation’s most valuable agricultural regions.

Eliuh Garcia, his wife and 19-year-old daughter join a caravan heading out to a muddy sorghum field where they will spend the day slicing rogue stalks that have grown too high for the combines.

A former oilfield worker from Mission, Garcia brought his family of six to Plainview for the harvest and cotton ginning season, which will last through the end of the year. But upon arrival in this agricultural hub, he had a hard time finding a place to live during the harvest season.

“People struggle when they come,” said labor contractor Alex Soto, Garcia’s work crew leader. “They need a place.”

Across rural Texas, farmworkers who leave their homes and follow the harvest are facing what advocates say is a decades-long housing crisis. What little affordable rental housing there is in the state’s agricultural regions is at 98 percent capacity, according to a 2012 study commissioned by the state. It also found more than 30 agricultural counties, from the Panhandle and South Texas to the Gulf Coast, devoid of rental housing that meets the unique needs of traveling farmworkers.

Despite that, state officials have largely ignored the study’s recommendations to increase the supply, either by creating a fund for farmworker housing or by more effectively pursuing federal money to construct affordable housing for the seasonal laborers. Though Texas has one of the nation’s largest farmworker populations, it has been shut out of more than $65 million federal authorities have awarded states for farmworker housing over two of the past three years.

New housing projects have also been derailed by local opposition and lack of support from elected officials, nonprofit developers say.

By state law, housing intended for migratory farmworkers must be licensed and inspected to ensure basic levels of health and safety. But population estimates show that there is licensed housing for only a fraction of the state’s traveling farmworkers, leaving tens of thousands without access to the state-regulated facilities.

With so few accommodations available, many traveling farmworkers end up in unsanitary private rentals, unsafe mobile homes, decrepit motels or even tents and cars.

After staying with his brother for a couple of weeks, Garcia finally found an unused trailer north of town. It had a broken water line, leaky roof and no stove or refrigerator. For water, he ran a hose from a neighbor’s trailer through an opening in the bathroom wall. “The floors had these big holes; you couldn’t step or you would fall through,” he said.

He repaired it as best he could, but a couple months after moving in, the trailer still lacked hot water.

The Garcia family prepares for a day of chopping overgrown sorghum stalks in Plainview, Texas.

A 40-year housing drought

The number of migratory farmworkers in Texas appears to be dropping due to increased mechanization, use of advanced herbicides, an aging workforce, and other factors. By one estimate, it’s down from more than 130,000 in 2006 to less than 40,000 today, though the latest count included farmworkers in only 49 of the state’s 254 counties and is considered low by advocates.

Assistance organizations say the decline may actually be exacerbating the housing crunch: Shrinking populations have decreased the pressure to build new facilities and replace aging labor camps, even though need still exists.

In Floyd County, a Vietnam War-era labor camp closed down a decade ago and nothing has taken its place. Officials with the Texas Migrant Council Headstart program in the county seat of Floydada, which provides early childhood development for migrant families, say that while there are fewer migrants, those that do still come for the harvest season live in increasingly precarious conditions.

“I’ve been to houses where the floor is hard-packed dirt,” said Lisa Mendoza, child development advisor at the center. “One family used to live in a garage with no beds. A lot of times they are embarassed for us to go. They don’t want us to see inside.”

After World War II, most itinerant farm work in Texas was performed by Mexican citizens with work permits doled out under the Bracero program, meant to fill labor shortages in American fields. Largely single men, the workers were often housed in barrack-style camps, with minimal standards.

The end of the program in 1964 brought a profound change in the housing needs of the migrant workforce, which transitioned to one made up mostly of south Texas residents who generally traveled with their families, according to a 1977 report. “The old bracero barracks were obviously unsuitable for housing these families,” researcher David B. Winn wrote. “The shortage of decent units was exacerbated by this change in housing needs.”

The economics of building farmworker housing are difficult: most stays empty outside the harvest season and is built for tenants who make low wages. Nonprofits and growers, who may be facing tight profit margins themselves, often need government help in the form of grants, loans or tax credits.

But Kathy Tyler, whose nonprofit Motivation Education & Training, Inc advocates for better migrant housing, said Texas has largely failed to leverage state money to help local organizations or property owners win federal funds for new projects.

In 2015 and 2013, Texas didn’t get any of the more than $65 million awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for farmworker housing. Since 2009, the state has received $18.9 million in federal farm labor housing grants and loans, or 8 percent of the total, according to USDA officials in Texas.

By comparison, California received $105.9 million over those years, or 44 percent of the total, according to USDA Rural Development progress reports.

Other states give more of the their own money. Ohio provided more than $160,000 in matching grants to build or improve farmworker housing in 2013. Texas offered none.

Advocates have also pushed the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to provide more federal tax credits for farmworker housing projects. There is intense competition for the credits, which can significantly lower building costs.

But unlike some other states, Texas does not reserve slots for farmwoker housing projects. Of the 366 tax credit housing applications received in early 2016 by the agency, none were for migrant farmworker housing.

“The state has never done nearly enough for housing for farmworkers,” said State Sen. Eddie Lucio, a Brownsville Democrat who has supported boosting affordable housing capacity in rural areas.

Melissa Garcia, now 20, working a sorghum field in Plainview. A former pharmacy student, she left college to help her family in the fields.

Doomed by politics?

Licensed housing for migratory farmworkers in Texas comes in two general categories. About 40 state-licensed facilities, many operated by growers or co-operatives and inspected by the state, have a capacity for 3,750 residents. There is also grower-provided housing for more than 2,500 foreign workers who enter with temporary H2A agricultural visas.

That leaves a need for tens of thousands of affordable units that meet minimum standards of sanitation and safety in many rural Texas communities. The 2012 study found eight rural counties in need of units for at least 1,000 farmworkers to meet demand.

But building new facilities can face opposition from locals.

When the Lubbock-based Guadalupe Economic Services Corporation sought to expand an apartment complex in Dalhart for farmworkers and other low income residents, Executive Director Diana Lopez said Texas Rep. John Smithee, an Amarillo Republican, refused to provide a letter of support, effectively killing the project. Such letters are considered crucial for winning the highly competitive, point-based tax credits.

“I don’t know if the (resistance) is due to the projects or the people who occupy them,” Lopez said.

Smithee said he doesn’t oppose building more housing for farmworkers, but added he rarely writes such letters of support, and does so only when local officials ask him to or pass a resolution in favor of a project. The fact it was for farmworkers “was not a factor at all,” he said.

Rose Garcia, executive director of Tierra del Sol Housing Corporation, which builds farmworker housing in New Mexico and Texas, said that in some parts of West Texas and the Panhandle, residents and local officials prefer that farmworkers be bused in daily from El Paso rather than having them live locally.

“The town does not want them there,” she said. “We’ve been threatened. It gets pretty passionate. They cite stories about farmworkers doing all kinds of bad things if they let them in.”

When Tierra del Sol does open new housing projects — it has several in West Texas and New Mexico — demand is high. “Many times when we open up we have people parking on the side of the road with kids and belongings waiting for us to open,” Garcia said. “And often there aren’t enough units.”

John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, said the housing issue is connected to questions of electoral power in rural Texas, where many former migrant workers put down roots.

“Very often these are counties whose permanent residential populations are declining and where the Hispanic population is growing and there is ethnic tension between people who have been there for a long time and newcomers,” he said. “There are people in many counties who don’t want more Hispanic permanent residents because if they vote they threaten the power of the people who have been running the situation for many generations.”

Industry impacts

The migrant housing shortage has affected not just farmworkers and their families, but the agricultural landscape of the state.

Tyler called the housing shortage an economic threat to the state’s $25 billion agricultural industry, saying it could force some growers to shut down or switch from fruits and vegetables to less labor intensive field crops because of difficulties in attracting a steady workforce.

Bernie Thiel, owner of Sunburst Farms in Lubbock, is one of the few growers to build new state-licensed housing in recent years, a quadplex that houses 16. “It was a matter of do that or don’t get any hands,” he said. “If there was more housing available, no doubt it would probably help.”

Thiel said the decreasing number of workers has caused some Texas produce farmers to apply for Mexican guest workers through the H2A visa program. In 2014, Texas farmers imported 2,500 farmworkers — up 25 percent from 2013. Farmers who use such workers must provide housing, which unlike regular farmworker housing, is inspected by officials with the Texas Workforce Commission with federal funds. Critics note such surveys are less stringent than state inspections.

Regulators have also linked substandard migrant housing conditions to food safety, especially among farmworkers who handle the nation’s fruits and vegetables. “Communicable diseases spread quickly in crowded housing facilities, and those diseases spread to farms,” wrote Washington State Health Secretary John Wiesman. “These repellant conditions lead to lost labor and widespread contamination of fruits and vegetables.”

And experts say the lack of affordable, family friendly housing is beginning to shatter family units already living on the margins.

“A lot of migrant workers have stopped bringing families any more because of instability of work and poor housing,” said Irma Guerra, director of the Head Start Division of the South Plains Community Action Network. “They are leaving their families in the (Rio Grande) Valley where their homes are. You might think, well at least the kids aren’t living in such conditions, but now you have families without a father figure.”

Also read: Time for Texas to enforce rules on migrant farm worker housing

Farm worker crew leader Alex Soto in a Plainview sorghum field.

Data visualization by CODY WINCHESTER