For many, the word farmworker conjures up graphic images of deteriorated and dilapidated housing hidden away in remote and isolated corners of rural America. Some might think of small, old wooden shacks with holes in the walls and floors. Others imagine sewage or chemicals running from pipes in open areas near the housing where children play. Still others think of large garages or sheds haphazardly divided into separate living areas by sheets flung over ropes strung across the ceiling. Sadly, these imagined pictures capture reality too well for many farmworkers and their families. Even more sadly, some farmworkers, the ones forced to live in cars, abandoned barns, or even grain silos, are worse off still.
There are generally two places where a farmworker might find housing – either on or off the farm. The type of housing provided on the farm is often referred to as a labor camp. It is common for grower-employers to surround these housing compounds with high fences, both to keep farmworkers in and to keep outsiders such as lawyers and health care providers out. The housing units themselves are typically crowded and unsanitary and lack the bare necessities most of us cannot imagine living without – toilets, running water, and even electricity. Many employers actually deduct rent payments from the paychecks of farmworkers who live in these substandard encampments.
Within the labor camps, there are often crewleaders or managers who act as the eyes and ears of the grower-employer. These managers note which workers raise complaints, and are especially on the lookout for workers who discuss organizing a union to improve living and working conditions. Since labor camps in most states are not subject to regular landlord-tenant laws, the owner can evict workers with very little notice—sometimes as quickly as 24 hours, especially when the employer terminates the employee. This constant threat of eviction silences most complaints and forces workers to endure terrible conditions, both where they work and where they sleep.
Between 1980 and the early 1990s, the number of licensed labor camps in one state fell dramatically from more than 5,000 to fewer than 1,000. Estimates suggest that labor camps today can only accommodate a very small percentage of the farmworkers in this country. Therefore, many farmworkers today no longer have the possibility of living in the labor camps, but must seek housing in the private market.
Farmworkers who must find housing off farms face many significant challenges. First, many rural areas simply lack affordable and decent housing for low-income renters. Secondly, landlords out to make a profit may choose to increase rents during the harvest season because they know the supply of housing is very limited. Because most farmworkers have incomes that dip far below the poverty level, they also struggle to gather enough funds to cover security deposits. Finally, they lack access to credit and are unable to commit to the year-long leases that many landlords require. As a result, farmworkers who must rent housing on the private market tend to crowd into small units to defray rental costs. Several families may crowd into one apartment, or as many as ten adult men may live together in tiny rental units.
Some farmworkers who do not have the option of living in labor camps and cannot find suitable rental units risk overexposure to the elements as they make their temporary homes in ditches, open fields, abandoned buildings, or cars.
The federal government has taken very limited steps to increase the availability of decent and affordable housing for farmworkers.
The U. S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Rural Housing Service administers the Section 514 and Section 516 programs, which provide loan and grant funds respectively to buy, build, improve, or repair farmworker housing. Unfortunately, the need for housing far exceeds funds available through the program. For housing, as with other migrant issues, accurate statistical information is hard to come by. However, the best and most recent national data available indicate that there is only enough adequate shelter for 425,000 of the nation’s 1.2 million farmworkers. This means that almost 70 per cent of farmworkers are simply without housing options. Despite this staggering need, the Section 514/516 programs created only 33,839 housing units since the program’s inception in 1962 to 2002.