More than 100,000 farmworkers power Oregon’s $42 billion agriculture economy. But that labor force is facing a housing market that’s either substandard or inaccessible, according to a recent report by the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department.
The department interviewed farmworkers, farmers and organizations in Morrow County and other agricultural areas across Oregon to assess the state of farmworker housing. The report concluded that farmworkers would need help on both ends of the affordable housing crisis: They need better pay to afford housing and more affordable housing needs to be built.
Many farmworkers interviewed for the report were skeptical the government would help them, but appreciated the chance to have their voices heard. One Morrow County worker pleaded with government officials to do more.
“To the state and federal [government], please support a reform,” the unnamed worker said. “We are souls in the dark. So many of us work hard and are living and working in many conditions that deserve better … There has been some advancement, [but] there are still many challenges. We are bringing food to many homes and are always underseen.”
Farmworkers are a significant part of the workforce in Morrow County, the second largest agricultural producer in the state thanks to its cattle ranches, dairies and fields that produce crops like potatoes and onions. Farm work is a heavily Latino profession, and Morrow County’s demographics reflect that: more than 40% of the county’s residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, the highest percentage in the state.
Some farmworkers told interviewers that they liked living in Boardman, the northern Morrow County town. They reported finding it quiet, peaceful and having a sense of community.
“We are close to the Columbia River and love being around the families, small communities,” one farmworker said in the report. “I feel very united.”
But the housing situation for many farmworkers isn’t ideal. On-farm housing is limited so most have to commute from private housing. Farmworkers from across the state reported poor housing conditions: broken appliances and electrical systems, damaged structures, pest infestations and unsanitary conditions.
Farmworker homes are also busting at the seams. More than three out of every four farmworkers reported living in overcrowded conditions. According to a Morrow County farmworker living with five other non-relatives in a trailer she owns, poor living conditions have negative impacts.
“Living in some of the conditions lowers your self-esteem, and [there] is an emotional toll of leaving your home and then coming to live in worse conditions,” she told an interviewer. “Everything is based on how we live and that makes you change the way you feel about yourself and how we are valued.
Attempts to find better housing are often out of reach, according to the report. New homes to rent or buy are often inaccessible due to price or residency status. Farmworkers often rely on word of mouth or personal networks to find housing. Some Morrow County interviewees specifically requested a farmworker resource center where new arrivals could be connected with housing and be informed of their rights.
What farmers are saying
On average, Oregon farm workers earn less than $25,000 per year. Over the past several years, the amount of farmworkers has shrunk, a trend farmers attribute to increased competition from other industries and children of farmworkers going into other work.
Trying to operate their business with fewer workers has led to increased competition from local farms, farmers said. Rival farms sometimes “steal” farmworkers by offering better wages. Some employers blamed the rise of cell phones, which allows farmworkers to more easily compare pay rates between farms.
In the report, farmers said raising wages isn’t always feasible. They said the prices they get for their products are fixed, so farmers can’t raise prices to accommodate higher wages. Some farmers are turning to mechanization or hiring temporary workers through the H-2A visa program to compensate for the labor shortage, but those bring their own expenses and limitations.
To solve the issue, farmers suggested the state could provide financial incentives to build farmworker housing and ease regulations.
The report recommended higher pay for farmworkers while also considering the farmers’ positions.
“When working to increase farmworker wages, it is important to acknowledge that asking farmers to increase what they pay for labor will put many of them at financial risk,” the report states. “It is important to work with farmers to transition to higher farmworker incomes while reducing negative impacts on local farm businesses.”
The report suggested the state look into expanding eligibility for housing vouchers through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to include farmworkers.
For some farmworkers, the alternative to poor housing is no housing at all. The report states that some farmworkers don’t have permanent housing, instead sleeping in their cars or trucks after work.