Q&A: Assemblyman Robert Rivas on farmworker housing bill

AB 1783 expected to make it easier to house farmworkers on agricultural land.

Assemblyman Robert Rivas recently introduced the Farmworker Housing Act of 2019, also known as AB 1783, which aims to streamline the process to build farmworker housing on agricultural land.

Longtime farm labor activist Dolores Huerta, United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero and Senators Anna Caballero, Maria Elena Durazo and Scott Wiener joined Rivas in announcing the bill on April 2.

As a co-author, Rivas answered several questions about AB 1783 via email.

BENITOLINK: What kind of support do you expect for this bill and how confident are you that it will pass? When is it expected to pass/go to the floor for a vote?

RIVAS: The Farmworker Housing Act of 2019 is supported by the United Farm Workers, San Benito County Supervisor Jim Gillio, Superintendent/President of Gavilan Community College Kathleen Rose, the City of Hollister, City of San Juan Bautista, City of Morgan Hill, City of Salinas, City of Soledad, County of Santa Cruz, Community Housing Improvement Systems and Planning Association, California Coalition for Rural Housing, California YIMBY, and Center for Farmworker Families, among others.

AB 1783 passed its first policy committee, the Assembly Housing and Community Development, on April 3 with a vote of 7-0. The bill will be heard next in the Assembly Local Government Committee on April 24.

Our farmworker housing shortage is a humanitarian crisis. We need to take action and I am happy to have more and more of my colleagues join me in support of the bill, including our State Senator Anna Caballero, who is a co-author.

What details can you provide on the housing proposed in the bill?

AB 1783 creates a streamlined process to build farmworker housing on agricultural land, sets quality standards to ensure that the new housing is dignified and family-friendly, and puts safeguards in place to protect the environment.

Size and density will be determined by the local farmer and not-for-profit housing manager. The streamlined process is available to help farms of all sizes. To qualify for it, the farmer needs to agree to quality standards and abide by key environmental safeguards. Quality standards include a prohibition on barracks-style housing, gender discrimination (no all-male dorms) or other housing that does not allow for family unity. Housing must be managed by a qualified affordable housing organization.

The construction will be on land zoned for agriculture that is not in sensitive areas where development could put people or the environment at risk. These sensitive areas include a coastal zone, wetlands, a high or very high fire severity zone, a hazardous waste site, an earthquake fault zone, a flood plain or floodway, lands identified for conservation in an adopted natural community conservation plan, and lands under conservation easement.

What environmental safeguards are built into the bill? Which environmental groups support the bill?

As mentioned above, the bill defines sensitive areas where streamlined projects can’t be built to protect people and the environment. Development is also not allowed on lands identified for conservation under a community conservation plan, a habitat conservation plan or another adopted natural resources protection plan.

We have been working closely with leaders and stakeholders in the environmental community to create the important safeguards in the bill. Groups that have come on in support so far include the Food Empowerment Project, California YIMBY, Santa Cruz Farm Bureau and Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority.

What does this bill mean for San Benito County? How will it affect farmworkers and farmworker housing in the county?

Too many of our agricultural workers in San Benito County are living in severely overcrowded conditions or without shelter altogether. A large number of workers in the region are year-round residents, many living with children. Although much focus has been on providing housing for temporary farmworkers, the data is clear that the most significant need is for permanent farmworker family housing.

This bill would protect our farmworkers from housing instability and displacement by incentivizing farm owners and operators to build more affordable farmworker housing on their private lands. The goal is to ensure farmworker families have access to dignified, quality housing and are not forced to live in motels, garages, cars, or worse.

What role do city and county governments play? If the bill passes, is it up to local jurisdictions to implement it?

Local governments have a significant role in determining if a development project does not meet specified requirements. Local governments would have the authority to conduct a design review or public oversight of the development, before the submission of a development application, to ensure that the development project satisfies specified requirements.

Anything else you’d like to to say about the bill?

AB 1783 creates an opt-in tool to help address our farmworker housing shortage. Farm owners and operators who choose not to use the new tool would be free to pursue permits for other projects, just as they would under current law today.


Noe Magaña

Noe Magaña is BenitoLink Co-Editor and Content Manager. He joined BenitoLink as reporter intern and was soon brought on staff as a BenitoLink reporter. He also experiments with videography and photography. He is a San Benito High School alumnus with a bachelor's in journalism from San Jose State and a Liberal Arts Associate's Degree from Gavilan College. Noe also attended San Jose City College and was the managing editor for the City College Times, the school's newspaper. He was a reporter and later a copy editor for San Jose State's Spartan Daily. He is a USC Center for Health Journalism 2020 California Fellow.