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Who was in charge of affordable housing on Half Moon Bay farm? County officials turn aside after shooting reveals ‘deplorable’ conditions

The workers of the two mushroom farms in Half Moon Bay were no doubt living in desperate circumstances. Many of their homes were flimsy shacks supported by wooden pallets. The roof leaked. Often there was no running water or kitchen.

But county and state officials were quick to blame the living conditions exposed by the horrific January 23 shooting at Terra Gardens Farm in California, and why this could continue. Most of them turned away when asked if they were allowed. Now, according to a review in the Bay Area Newsgroup, laws to ensure affordable housing for farm workers are often not enforced in San Mateo County, and farm owners face hardships, including those of shooters and their victims. You can ignore the workforce that is doing it.

Neither Terra Garden nor Concord Farms (which was the second shooting site in an assault by disgruntled workers that left seven dead) had no permits for their workers’ housing. County officials say they are taking action against such illegal housing primarily to respond to complaints, and there are no records of workers at either farm raising the alarm.

But that response overlooks the county’s own responsibility in a reality palpable for farm workers in Half Moon Bay and across the state.

“The law is made, but not enforced,” said Ann Lopez, director of the Farm Worker Family Center, a nonprofit in Santa Cruz County. “I see this problem as a systemic one.”

State law requires farm worker housing to be self-contained units with sanitary toilets, showers, toilet facilities, heat and electricity, and kitchens with refrigerators, sinks, and stoves. In most California counties, the job of monitoring farmworker housing is left to the state. However, San Mateo County is one of the few California jurisdictions to assume oversight duties under its 1975 state charter and county resolution.

The San Mateo County Department of Planning and Buildings is the agency that enforces building codes. Records show that when farm owners obtained permits, responded to complaints, and in some cases ordered the removal of illegal dwellings, including past interactions with Concord Farms in 2012, farm workers were forced to live. Inspect regularly.

But when asked about living conditions at Terra Gardens and Concord Farm, San Mateo County Executive Officer Mike Carragee last week “had no idea” that farmworker housing “existed there.” said. No housing permits on file and no current violations or complaints.

“These are large farms,” ​​Caraghee said. “We usually don’t have the right to go to a place of residence or for the purpose of investigating a violation. Most of the time it’s due to complaints.”

But state officials say the Health and Safety Act gives employee housing enforcement agencies the right to enter private property to determine if an employee has housing. And in San Mateo County, the enforcement agency is clearly the county itself.

Callagy said the county actually has the power to actively seek housing for its employees, which is a “great provision” but difficult to enforce in practice, Callagy said. “Certainly, we don’t have enough resources to go door to door looking for illegal forces,” he said.

Allison Alcon, a professor at Pacific University in Stockton who studies food justice, says counties have a distinct responsibility to recognize illegal farmworker housing within their jurisdiction, and that farmworkers’ unique given its vulnerability, said that bureaucratic back-passing is common.

“Finding unlicensed housing is one of the things the county does and I think it punishes people who build housing without a permit,” Alcon said. Detecting and detecting exploitative practices and enforcing the law is kind of their job, but that’s not how they work.”

Many questions remain about the living conditions of the California Terra Gardens and Concord Farm workers. Both companies declined media requests to tour the facility. County supervisor Ray Mueller joined a group of officials who visited Terra Gardens three days after his shooting and posted a photo of the house labeled “deplorable” on his social media. As seen in Mueller photos and drone photos taken by the Bay Area News Group, the confessing shooter Chunli Zhao and his wife lived in a small hut with a blue tarp roof. No photos of the Concord Farms home have been released.

An employee’s home at California Terra Gardens in Half Moon Bay, California, Wednesday, January 25, 2023. In the middle right is the blue-roofed building where shooting suspect Chun Lijiao, 66, lived with his wife. After the Jan. 23 shooting, Zhao was charged with seven counts of murder. (Jane Tiska/Bay Area News Group)

monday, california terra garden announced that it would build a new permanent home A separate area of ​​the farm for employees and their families, working with local officials to ensure that workers have adequate and affordable housing in the area for an estimated 12 months until it is completed. Farms said the decision followed “joint discussions with local authorities that revealed a set of codes and permit requirements that were not known prior to the tragic shootings that occurred last week.” .

TerraGarden’s statement, which declined to provide details, said the farm owners were unaware of farm worker housing permit requirements and codes, and the county authorities that enforce those regulations did not inform the company of them. was suggesting

But the company isn’t new to farming in California. California Terra Garden was founded in 2013 as a privately owned “fresh mushroom wholesale” company, first in Foster City and most recently in Commerce, according to state records. It lists Xianmin Guan as CEO and Liming Zhu as secretary. Also, Half Moon, incorporated in 2015, owns Pescadero Terra Gardens’ “mushroom farm” on the coast of the Bay and Ventura Terra Gardens, a “mushroom wholesaler” incorporated in 2014. is also related.

There are no records of housing conditions at Terra Gardens, but county officials confirmed they have a record of concerns about the quality of housing for farm workers at Concord Farms, where Zhao previously worked. County officials have been discussing the issue of illegal trailers on the farm for years. However, the county “has not complied since then,” the record says.

When asked why the county didn’t comply, Preston Merchant, a spokesperson for the San Mateo County Health Department, responded with the same kind of explanation Carragee offered. I rely on complaints.

Employees say farm housing has been around for years. It wasn’t clear if the housing complied with regulations — and calls from the news outlet to the company’s CEO and registered agent, Grace Tung, were not returned this week. Incorporated in the state, it is not known whether they operate other farms in the state.

The Bay Area News Group spoke to a couple who worked at Concord Farms for seven years and said they slept in a small room big enough for their bed and two drawers. The couple, Chinese immigrants who refused to give their names for fear of reprisal from their superiors, described a dormitory-like structure where people lived in small single rooms, many of which had no running water. When it rained, ankle-deep water flooded the meager dwelling.

“We lived frugally,” said his wife. “I had no choice.”

BJ Burns, a hay farmer and president of the San Mateo County Department of Agriculture, said the county inspects farm workers’ housing on the property each year. He is sure county officials knew about the mushroom farm’s unauthorized housing, and it would be unfair to him and others in the farming industry for the government to slip the rules on others. said.

“There’s no excuse,” Burns said, adding that farm workers were “like family,” but when a situation as dire as that on a mushroom farm was exposed, “it exploded and we were all the same.” Painted with a brush.

“That’s not right,” Burns said. “It’s not right when you see them being treated like this. They are human and should be treated like humans.”

San Mateo County officials have long recognized substandard farm worker housing in at least some locations. Former county sheriff and supervisor Don Horsley said: quotes in 2020 He said some housing was “horrible” and that “these standards could not put people in prison.” He worked on developing a grant program to help farms build or renovate housing for farm workers.

Local officials like Half Moon Bay Deputy Mayor Joaquín Jiménez, who is also the farmworkers program director for local nonprofit ALAS, said the threat of losing farmworkers’ housing meant they were less likely to complain about the situation. I said it gets complicated. He said he had visited Terra Gardens three days before the shooting and saw houses not following regulations. But when asked if he regretted not reporting to the county, he replied, “Yes, no.”

In 2021, after ALAS reported housing conditions at a local nursery school, county officials instructed the company to remove four trailers where workers spent part of the week. The owner complied, but Jimenez said it drove all the farm workers out, according to county records.

At a supervisors meeting Tuesday, Caraghee admitted there are other farms in addition to Terra and Concord where workers are forced to live in unacceptable conditions. He said he was working on a plan to fix it.

“We know there are these shadowy areas of the county where farm workers live, where they live in conditions that are substandard and not conducive to the health and safety of their residents,” he said. said, “That’s what we can do. It’s not acceptable in this county.”

Mueller, who was elected county superintendent last fall, made a campaign promise to do more to improve housing conditions for farm workers. He hopes to make plans to review it in the coming months to maintain housing standards for farm workers without displacing workers.

“This spotlight on farmworker housing will never go out,” Mueller said. “Until we move forward, we will build a big, bright fire. We have a lot of support in the community and a lot of support in our farming community.”

https://www.eastbaytimes.com/2023/02/05/who-was-supposed-to-ensure-half-moon-bay-farmworker-homes-had-plumbing-kitchens/ Who was in charge of affordable housing on Half Moon Bay farm? County officials turn aside after shooting reveals ‘deplorable’ conditions

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