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Sonoma County helping to solve labor and housing shortage in local Sonoma vineyards

By: Katherine Minkiewicz
October 5, 2017

Mario and Maria interview translated by Carmen DeLoza

Every year in early August and September, the rolling vineyards of Sonoma County begin to turn a soft, golden orange and yellow as harvest time approaches, consequently causing grape growers to hire more workers -- migrant or local, to tend to the grapevines, causing a need for more housing in a low inventory and expensive market, where vineyard workers may cram themselves in a small garage or rent a miniscule apartment for a handful of farmworkers to live in.

With the help of a newly approved Sonoma County plan for the installation of over 170 bunkhouses in local county wineries and vineyards, the current living environment for seasonal vineyard workers may start to change.

Last Tuesday the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved an agreement with several wineries and grape growers in Santa Rosa, Geyserville and Healdsburg, that would help expedite the process for these bunkhouses, which would help supply more housing for workers in Sonoma County where affordable housing is hard to come by.

According to District 4 Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, the idea for the bunkhouses was brought to the table by local wineries and vineyards.

“The idea for the bunkhouses did not come up by me or any other local official, it came up by folks who work in the wine industry themselves and that’s really where the best ideas come from,” Gore said.

In order to help expedite the process of approving the dorm style houses, “Wineries used the same architect and engineer to create a bunkhouse…” and that, “the Board of Supervisors waived the park and traffic mitigation fees,” for what is being dubbed as a “vital housing project,” according to the Sonoma County press release prepared by Rebecca Wachsberg.

According to the press release, five vineyards; Bevill Vineyards, Jackson Family Wines, KBarr Daughters, Mauritson Wines and Vernazza Vineyards, will provide funds for their own bunkhouses, which in total will create an available 172 bed spaces for vineyard workers.

Duff Bevill, the founder of Bevill Vineyards, said he doesn’t mind paying out of pocket for the bunkhouses because he says it will greatly help the labor shortage as well as the issue of affordable housing.

“We participated in the research done by the Winery Commission this past year and reviewed workers throughout the county, some were my employees. We got quite a bit of feedback and one of the primary issues was housing,” Bevill said.

Bevill says he has workers who permanently live and work in Sonoma, 12 months out of the year, however, the issue with finding housing in a skyrocketing housing market (where a studio can be as costly as $1,200 a month, according to the Press Democrat) falls on the seasonal workers, who work and live in the area for only 4-6 months.

More employees start streaming in through June until the end of the harvest and with a mad dash for more vineyard workers, the need for more housing presents itself, which Bevill says is the driving force behind getting the bunkhouses built.

“You go from needing a whole bunch of people almost overnight, to tapering off when the season is over,” Bevill said. “All those people have good full-time work for six to seven months, what are they supposed to do for (housing) the other five months? They’re seasonal and historically you had farms where you had people living on the ranch when it was slow,” Bevill explained.

As Bevill explained, over the years he has seen a bit of a decline in truly traditional migrant workers who travel for work then return home. He says now he notices that these seasonal workers tend to remain in the area after the seasonal harvest work ends in Sonoma, thus meriting a need for more affordable housing bunkhouses.

According to Gore, this is only one step to the solution in helping farmers and vineyard workers find affordable housing, as these bunks will only be adequate for one individual and not families.

“These 172 beds that we have now authorized is just the beginning of what we need to do with respect to housing for agricultural operations overall. We have a housing crisis all throughout Sonoma County,” Gore said of the bunkhouse plan. “But these programs are specifically for our H2A Program which is an immigration program whereby if landowners can secure transportation, bring seasonal workers (completely legal farmworkers) from Mexico up here for a period of 10 months. So this is one link in the change of addressing agricultural labor focused on non-residents with temporary housing that is sustainable and of good quality where people can live.”

Bevill says the higher pay and these bunkhouses will hopefully bring more seasonal workers in when the vineyard needs them the most.

While this housing solution only addresses the needs of individual seasonal workers, vineyard or farm workers who remain in the county with their families are also in need of more affordable housing options.

According to a Sonoma County Department of Health Services survey on local farmworkers conducted in 2015, it was found that, “the majority of farmworkers are permanent residents of Sonoma County and live with their families; farmworker families live in unaffordable and overcrowded housing conditions.”

Efren Carrillo, director of community and media relations for Burbank Housing, says there is indeed the presence of poor living conditions and homelessness, which some farmers and their families have had to endure.

“There certainly are farm workers that are living on the streets, living in creeks or automobiles and then there are those farm workers that are living in housing where you have upwards of a dozen workers living in a single-family home. Just out of the experience I have seen in Santa Rosa, there are dozens of properties that have multiple farm workers living in a converted garage or granny units to be able to make ends meet,” Carrillo said.

To try and combat this housing disparity, Burbank Housing, a nonprofit based out of Santa Rosa is another step further for a resource for families of migrant workers and vineyard workers who need more than just a bunkhouse.

Carrillo says the goal of the nonprofit is to provide more affordable, permanent housing, equipped for families of farmers.

“Certainly it (the bunkhouses) is important and vital for those migrant farm workers to have access to housing, but the need is still large. On one end, you are going to have those folks that can sleep in bunkhouse style rooms and then you’re also going to have those that either have families or have a necessity to live not in a rural environment and have access to groceries and services... So, on one end, to really address the long-term -- the bunkhouses certainly play a role, but you also should find additional farmworker housing in incorporated cities,” Carrillo explained.      

Burbank focuses on building affordable and comfortable family friendly communities and units across the North Bay and has built over 2,000 rental units in its 35-year history which according to Carrillo, not only serves farmworkers, but also municipal employees, teachers and employees.

One couple, Mario and Maria originally from Michoacán, Mexico, were able to find permanent housing through Burbank when one of the affordable housing units in Sonoma had vacancies, a rarity for the non-profit which usually has hundreds of people on a waitlist for weeks on end.

Mario works at the Sian Giacometti Family Vineyard and his wife Maria, at the Hotel de Lounge Sonoma and said it was originally very difficult to find housing for their family.

“We have friends that always ask us if there are any vacancies in our area because most families rent one room for a whole family,” they said. The couple said, “they are very happy (since) we don’t pay high rent because we don’t make a lot of money.”

As for the bunkhouses for the migrant vineyard workers, Gore says they are expected to be finished constructing the houses throughout the five vineyards by early spring of next year.

And for Bevill the best aspect of this project is that it may help free up housing for those who come to work in the county. “This will benefit people living in Sonoma County, whether they are farm workers or residents,” Bevill said.