National issues State issues

As the pumpkin season approaches there is not housing for farm workers in the Texas pumpkin capital

The housing for farm workers in Floydada, TX is closed because of neglicect.  Click the image to see video.
The housing for farm workers in Floydada, TX is closed because of neglect. Click the image to see video.

The farm worker housing development in Floydada, TX  and in the Texas Panhandle’s Floyd County is closed.

Farm workers are present in fairly large numbers to tend and harvest pumpkins in a county that styles itself as “Pumpkin Capital, USA.”  Housing is difficult to find.  It used to be that thirty families or so would find housing in a US Department of Agriculture funded farm labor housing development operated by the Floydada Housing Authority.  But housing conditions in this farm labor housing development deteriorated to the point where the housing development is now closed.

Watch a video of housing conditions in this government funded housing development we shot in 2002.

The development did not deteriorate because of tenant abuse of the housing but become of neglect on the part of USDA and the failure of the local housing authority to repair and maintain the thirty plus year old development.  In the wake of a federal lawsuit filed by Texas Rio Grande Legal over conditions in the housing development there has a lot of finger pointing by USDA and the housing authority regarding who is to blame.

While both share in the blame, the USDA should assume the principal responsibility to fix the apartments.

The development was built under a federal program to provide housing for farm workers known as the USDA Section 514/516 Farm Labor Housing program.  The federal program provides a combination of a very low interest loan and a partial grant to finance the construction of housing for agricultural laborers.  The original owner/developer/applicant was a group of agricultural growers from Floyd County who needed housing for about five to six months each year for the seasonal migrant workers needed to tend their pumpkin crop.  After the development was built ownership and management was turned over to the small Floydada Housing Authority.

From the beginning, the USDA knew that the housing would only be occupied less than half of each year by the migrant farm workers.  This means that enough rent must to be collected over those months to pay the costs of opening and closing the housing each year, keeping it up and dealing with the large tenant turnover.  The rents that the migrants could afford in recent years averaged only in the $300 – $350 per month range.

For several years, while the project was new, repairs could be deferred and the property operated with the limited rents that were coming in.  There was an underlying racist assumption implicit in the financing of this development that we have found in other farm labor housing developments in Texas.  That assumption is that since this housing is for farm workers and since the farm workers are Hispanic, a lower quality standard of housing construction and maintenance is acceptable.

Compare the construction standards and the maintenance levels at the Floydada Farm Labor Housing development to the standards and conditions in USDA funded non farm worker housing in Floyd and adjacent counties in the Texas Panhandle.  Most of the non farm worker government subsidized housing is occupied by white, non-Hispanic households.  USDA funded these other housing developments far more generously as far a construction financing goes, more often provides supplemental rental assistance to maintain the apartments and insists on much higher levels of maintenance.

USDA could have assigned rent subsidy funds to the Floydada Farm Labor Housing Development that would have supplemented the rents paid by the farm workers and given the owners some more money to keep the housing up.  But USDA didn’t.

The Floydada Housing Authority could have applied for supplementary grants and loans to keep the housing up.  But the housing authority didn’t (at least until it was too late).

USDA sent a delegation of agency officials from Washington to look at the Floydada development and other decrepit farm worker housing in Texas.  One of the top USDA officials on the the visit is reported to have observed, “This is our housing?  This is a disgrace.”  But the USDA officials flew back to Washington and took no action that resulted in the housing being repaired.

Frustrated with the lack of progress on getting the housing fixed up a group of migrant farm workers sued USDA in federal court.  That has been more than two years ago and the case still drags on.

So this season there will be no publicly subsidized housing for the migrant farm workers coming to Floyd County to work the pumpkin crop.

When you pick up a pumpkin at the store, take moment to think about one of the last people who touched that pumpkin before you.  Pause to consider that the reason your pumpkin is so inexpensive is the low wages the migrant farm workers were paid.  The farm worker who grew and harvested your pumpkin for sure did not have enough money to rent a decent place for them and their kids to live for the months they worked on the pumpkin crop.  And, along with the rest of us, get a little angry that the USDA subsidized housing that used to offer them an affordable home is shut down now because of racism and neglect.

I started my commitment to housing justice for people and communities with low incomes in 1975 in Austin's Clarksville community. These years of working side-by-side with dedicated community leaders to find solutions to housing and community development challenges have taught me some things and I’m learning new things every day.

%d bloggers like this: