If they were Zillow listings, they would leave something to be desired: Water pipes frozen for days on end. Bedbugs and mice. A trailer shared with three roommates. A 10-by-14-foot concrete room adjacent to a milking parlor, with two bunk beds but no bathroom.
The units, which are home to Vermont farmworkers, are among the hundreds of rooms and apartments that fall short of generally accepted safety and cleanliness standards, according to a recent assessment commissioned by the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board.
The report, issued this month, found that up to 40% of the housing for migrant farm workers requires moderate or significant upgrades costing at least $5,000. On Wednesday, lawmakers took testimony on the findings, citing opportunities to use federal relief money to invest in worker housing.
“The ag world is something we hold high in our esteem,” Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, said in an interview. “People shouldn’t be living in the conditions they’re living in.”
In 2017, about 21,000 employees worked on 6,000 Vermont farms. More than half of that total, roughly 12,500, are farm owners and their family members, and another 6,500 workers live off the farm.
But about 2,000 people, many of them undocumented, live on the farms where they work. The majority are single men employed by dairy farms. Many who come from southern Mexico or Guatemala don’t know where they’ll be living until they arrive, said Marita Canedo, who works for the advocacy organization Migrant Justice, in testimony to legislators.
In many cases, they live in housing that is dirty, overcrowded or unsafe. The report cited issues with noise and overcrowding that can make it difficult for workers to sleep in between round-the-clock shifts at dairy farms. Many units are not cleaned or maintained regularly, and lack trash removal or food storage.
A 2014 Migrant Justice survey of 172 farm workers found that about 10% of the accommodations did not have heat, and about 15% didn’t have running water, according to Tom Fritzsche, executive director of the Milk with Dignity Standards Council, an organization created by Migrant Justice to improve worker living conditions on participating farms.
In 2019, only 46% of the 72 farm housing units in the program were fully compliant with Vermont rental housing health code, Fritzche said.
“The beautiful [landscapes] we see on our products in the supermarket, it’s not true,” Canedo said. “The people bringing food to your table are living in inhumane conditions.”
‘No profit margin’
Housing experts said that making improvements won’t be straightforward. Farmers often do not have the means to make the upgrades. Many are financially strapped because of low milk prices and feel besieged by increasing environmental, food safety and economic regulations, said John Ryan, a consultant who wrote the report.
Economic instability can make farmers reluctant, or unable, to invest in infrastructure such as worker housing. “There’s no profit margin,” said Republican Rep. Rodney Graham, who previously owned a dairy farm in Williamstown. “The last place money goes is building, because there’s none left. You could probably find several farm owners who are living in inadequate conditions.”
He said he supported addressing the issue but urged lawmakers to “take into account the whole picture and not just part of it.”
There’s not enough housing for workers, and much of the existing stock is aging, said Dan Baker, a professor of community development and applied economics at the University of Vermont. Many workers live in trailers, which can be poor quality and difficult to repair.
The scope of the problem is not fully clear. There is no state oversight or inspections for most employee housing, and if the workers are undocumented, they are less likely to file a complaint. Vermont does not have a census of undocumented farm workers. Estimates range from 800 to 1,500, Baker said.
Undocumented workers also might be ineligible for certain federal funds and grants, which require that recipients be citizens.
“For the farmers, to ask them to be housing developers is asking a lot. There’s really no other industry in Vermont that still has that,” Ryan said. “And at the same time, there’s no other industry in Vermont that doesn’t have to pay minimum wage or pay overtime.”
Millions to tap
Lawmakers said they see an opportunity to improve housing for farmworkers with the millions of dollars in federal relief money headed to Vermont.
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, chair of the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, suggested the state could buy prefab homes from the Jamaica Cottage Shop. Rep. Chip Troiano, D-Stannard, countered that Vermont could buy two portable sawmills and have the farmworkers build their own cabins.
Stevens told VTDigger that he thought it unlikely that a farmworker housing proposal would move forward this session. The conversation “put it onto our radars to move forward policy work that can be funded in the near future,” he said.
Logistical and funding questions need to be ironed out, including how much money will be available and how it can be used, said Gus Seelig, executive director of the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board.
“We have no guidance on how the ARPA money can be spent,” he said.
But Seelig and his staff have already started brainstorming solutions. They’ve talked to Efficiency Vermont about awarding a grant for zero-energy modular homes that could be used to house some workers. Seelig has also asked the Legislature to set aside state money for a repair program “to begin to try things out.”
The process will require listening to both farmers and to their workers, he said. While there’s a need for housing upgrades, “farmers generally want to do the right thing by their employees,” he said. “The financial pressures in ag are such that it’s going to be very difficult without other funding.”
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