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Improving Housing for Farmworkers in the United States Is a Public Health Imperative

  • Date: Nov 01 2011
  • Policy Number: 20118

Key Words: Farmworkers, Housing, Immigrant Health, Migrant and Seasonal Workers, Labor Issues

Definitions and Key Terms

The general term “farmworker” will be used in this position paper for simplicity. Unless otherwise noted, this term represents a diverse population comprising the following groups of crop workers, some of which can overlap for any given worker.[1] 

Seasonal farmworkers. Farmworkers who do not have regular, year-round employment by a single employer. Crop laborers who work 12 months of the year, but for different employers, are considered “seasonal.” 

Migrant farmworkers. Generally, migrant farmworkers are people who travel great distances, sometimes overnight, for employment. Some migrant farmworkers are seasonal only for part of the year. During certain times of the harvest season they work at locations where it is impractical for them to return each night to their primary home. 

Guest workers. Noncitizens with temporary legal status to work in the United States. For example, the H-2A program allows employers to bring in temporary, foreign-born agricultural workers if no native-born workers are available to do a job.[2]

Undocumented workers. Noncitizens residing in the United States who do not have legal permission to live or work in the country.

Purpose Statement
The sustainability of the US food and agricultural systems, particularly specialty crops such as fruits and vegetables, is highly dependent on the manual labor of farmworkers.[3] However, crop labor is a low-paying, hazardous profession, and the supply of workers to fill these jobs is limited.[4–6] Farmworkers are often socially and geographically hidden, and their unique health and safety needs are frequently overlooked. In particular, migrant, seasonal, immigrant, and undocumented farmworkers across the country lack suitable housing options. This housing shortage has negative effects on the health of workers, the rural communities where they live and work, and the viability of the farming sector that employs and feeds millions of Americans.

The American Public Health Association (APHA) has long acknowledged the connection between housing and health, supported occupational health and safety protections, and urged that the health of immigrants, regardless of documentation status, be improved. The purpose of this position paper is to establish the availability of affordable, accessible, and quality housing options for farmworkers and their families as an APHA priority, reinforcing APHA’s existing position of supporting the health and well-being of this population.

In 1938, the APHA Committee on the Hygiene of Housing issued recommendations defining the fundamental characteristics of healthful housing that continue to guide US government model housing guidelines.[7] APHA updated these principles in 1968 to emphasize the relationship between housing and the World Health Organization’s holistic definition of health as a “state of complete mental, physical, and social well-being.”[8] Subsequent APHA policy statements on the public health role of building codes[9] and publications such as Healthy and Safe Homes have reaffirmed the association’s commitment to advocating for safe housing in the interest of public health.[10]

The issue of farmworker housing is intimately connected to the rights and health status of foreign-born individuals and families living in the United States; over three quarters of seasonal agricultural workers were born in Mexico or Central America and an additional 20% of noncitizen farmworkers self-identify as Asian[3,11] APHA has resolutions on other aspects of immigrant and migrant health but has not yet addressed farmworker housing, although a recent policy statement identifies poor housing conditions as a contributor to chronic stress and thereby health disparities among immigrants more broadly.[12] APHA recognizes that the United States has “an affirmative responsibility to create and implement policies that do not harm the health and human rights of documented and undocumented persons.”[13,14] Previous policy statements have supported the rights of immigrants to health and safety protections in contexts ranging from their workplace,[15] disaster relief,[16] and border crossings.[13,14] Furthermore, in 1978 APHA approved a policy statement asking the appropriate authorities to improve housing inspections and code enforcement at migrant labor camps.[17] Three decades later, migrant and seasonal farmworkers still have significant unmet housing needs that contribute to poor health and, as a result, significant health disparities such as higher rates of infectious disease, harmful exposures, and homelessness.[3,11,18–20] This position paper builds on earlier statements by acknowledging the diverse health and housing needs of the large number of farmworkers living and dwelling in the United States and recommends a comprehensive set of strategies to improve access to quality housing.

Given the close relationship between housing and health, it is impractical to address the health needs of farmworkers without addressing their housing needs. To ensure that an adequate supply of affordable and quality housing is available to farmworkers across the United States, APHA recommends the following:

  1. Increase the availability of affordable and accessible housing that meets health and safety standards;
  2. Eliminate discriminatory barriers that migrant, seasonal, immigrant, and undocumented farmworkers face in accessing housing;
  3. Increase farmworkers’ ability to afford decent housing;
  4. Ensure that health and safety standards are met for existing housing; and
  5. Increase understanding of the health and housing needs of the farmworker population. 

Problem Statement and Evidence

The lack of affordable and accessible quality housing for farmworkers has resulted in increased public health risks and health disparities for this population. Farmworkers face barriers accessing shelter related to language and educational status, lack of proper documentation, discrimination, low wages, inconsistent employment, the need to travel long distances for work, and a lack of credit. Meanwhile, the shortage of suitable shelter forces many farmworkers into housing situations that significantly harm their health. 

Agriculture and Farmworker Characteristics in the United States

No reliable data exist on the total number of farmworkers in the United States, although estimates range from 1.6 million to 5 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers nationwide.[21] The ready supply of labor provided by migrant and immigrant workers to the agricultural sector is critical to helping growers stay financially profitable in a dynamic marketplace. Historical changes in territorial borders and federal policies that created a preference for employment-based immigration have caused the availability of agricultural labor to fluctuate over time.[22] Native-born worker preferences have shifted as the US population ages and becomes more educated, and immigrant workers are increasingly relied upon to fill jobs in the agricultural sector.[6]

States and rural communities with an abundance of specialty crops such as fruits, vegetables, horticulture, and nursery crops face unique labor challenges. One half of all hired and contracted farmworkers are concentrated in 6 states with a high proportion of specialty crops: California, Florida, Texas, Washington, Oregon, and North Carolina.[3] Since specialty growers cannot mechanize to reduce costs, these regions have farmworker housing needs related to the seasonal nature of intensive crop work.[23] Although specific needs may vary from state to state, specialty crop communities generally have small permanent populations but need large numbers of farmworkers for production and harvest.

The sudden influx of farmworkers during harvest season can be overwhelming to rural communities. Growers facing economic pressures are often unable or unwilling to provide on-farm housing, while providers of community-based affordable

housing lack resources to develop additional housing. Migrant farmworkers are of special concern since they typically earn less than salaried farmworkers.[3] Ensuring a stable housing supply for these workers will improve the lives of millions of farmworkers, their health, and the health of their communities. Furthermore, as a co-benefit it will offer a measure of economic stability to growers grappling with an unstable workforce in the face of international market pressures and improve the stability of regional food systems and the agricultural economy.

Farmworker Housing in the United States
Farmworker housing typically consists of 3 options: on-farm housing, private rentals, and community-based housing. The housing demand exceeds supply for each of these options. The US General Accounting Office reported in 1992 that farmworker housing options in California, Oregon, and Washington (including private camps, employer-provided housing, and California’s state-run camps) had the capacity to house less than 30% of these states’ farmworkers, even excluding the dependants who migrate with workers.[24] This forces many workers to set up makeshift living conditions; the California Agricultural Worker Health Survey found workers living in bare garages, vehicles, and animal stalls.[25] The seasonal nature of farm work compounds the lack of housing. Many farmworkers migrate from town to town following growing and harvest seasons, and the need for housing in any given location fluctuates greatly.[24]

Historically, many growers provided on-farm housing to farmworkers. However, trends spanning from the 1970s through the early 1990s show that agricultural employers are discontinuing the provision of housing for their hired farmworkers.[24] Agricultural employers are not legally required to provide housing for their workers (excluding those hired through the H-2A system) and face various economic disincentives to providing housing.[24] In 2010, the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department estimated that only 13% of Oregon’s nearly 10|000 farmworkers were able to reside in registered on-farm work camps.[26]

As on-farm housing options become less available, farmworkers increasingly seek off-farm housing. Finding housing in small rural communities can be challenging given the limited availability of large apartment complexes, trailer parks, or other rental options, and these challenges are exacerbated during peak season.[27] The need for off-farm housing has further increased as more migrant farmworkers are settling in one primary location and shuttling to nearby farms for work.[28] 

Farmworkers also look for seasonal housing within community-based housing projects constructed for farmworkers. Such housing projects are often built by community-based organizations (CBOs) with varying levels of support from government funding streams.[29] Although considered one of the more innovative solutions for farmworker housing, community-based housing projects are limited by construction and operating costs.[23,29] Other constraints include lack of federal funds, local government resistance to losing tax revenue, difficulties in finding land, zoning laws prohibiting multifamily projects, opposition of communities to farm labor housing, limited utilities infrastructure, and lack of nonprofit capacity.[29]

As farmworker housing needs vary among different states, national policy recommendations relating to farmworker housing and health must be formulated carefully to make sure they address housing issues in each region. 

Farmworker Housing and Health Status
Migrant and seasonal farmworkers experience poor health outcomes, partly through living in substandard housing and makeshift conditions—such as garages, lean-tos, and camps on national forest land—where workers are vulnerable to health threats that no longer affect most US residents.[25] Housing is intimately related to health. The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified a series of basic principles to guide an understanding of the connection between human health and housing.[30] According to WHO, adequate housing must do the following:

  1. Provide protection against communicable disease;
  2. Provide protection against injuries or harmful exposures;
  3. Reduce psychological and social stressors to a minimum;
  4. Provide access to places of work, essential services, and amenities that promote good health; and
  5. Protect populations at special risk.

Housing available to or provided for farmworkers does not always meet these criteria, and homelessness, along with substandard and overcrowded housing conditions, create serious health and safety hazards.[23] Evaluating how and why farmworker housing in the United States falls short of these criteria lays the foundation for APHA policy recommendations.US Farmworker Housing Does Not Protect Against Communicable Disease.

  1. Inadequate and crowded housing, poor sanitation, and lack of potable water and sewage systems cause farmworkers to be vulnerable to infectious and intestinal disorders at rates much higher than in the general population.[31] A national survey of farmworker housing units found that half of these units were “crowded,” defined by the US Census Bureau as having more than one person per room, compared with only 2% of all US households.[21] Crowded conditions are associated with increased incidence of tuberculosis and influenza; farmworkers are approximately 6 times more likely to develop tuberculosis than other workers,[18] and may also be more vulnerable to influenza pandemics.[32] Lack of sanitation can contribute to the contraction of hepatitis, gastroenteritis, and other conditions, and farmworkers have parasitic infection rates 11 to 59 times higher than in the general population.[19] Contaminated water sources are also common; consequently, the rate of going to clinics for diarrhea is 20 times higher among farmworkers than among the urban poor.[33] 
  2. US Farmworker Housing Does Not Protect Against Injuries Or Harmful Exposures.
  3. A survey conducted by the Housing Assistance Council raised substantial concerns about the potential of injury and exposure to toxins in farmworker housing.[34] Injuries due to structural or electrical problems are frequent for those living in substandard housing.[35] Farmworker families also face significant risks related to pesticide exposure. Studies suggest that farmworkers create a “take-home” pathway from the fields to home that increases exposure risk for nonfarmworker household members.[36] Pesticide residues have been found in dust in the homes of farmworker families, and living with farmworker parents has been associated with increased urinary biomarker levels in children.[36]
  4. US Farmworker Housing Does Not Reduce Psychological and Social Stressors to a Minimum.
  5. Lack of housing and poor housing can be a significant source of stress for farmworkers. Farmworkers who depend on their employers for housing are especially vulnerable since expressing concerns with housing quality could result in both job and housing loss. A 2003 study showed that the stressors of rigid work demands and poor housing conditions were both significantly associated with higher levels of anxiety in migrant farmworkers.[37]
  6. US Farmworker Housing Does Not Provide Access to Places of Work, Essential Services, and Amenities That Promote Good Health.
  7. A mobile lifestyle characterized by constant residential change, along with language and cultural barriers, make accessing health services a constant challenge for farmworkers.[11] The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that federally funded migrant health clinics serve only 13% of eligible farmworkers.[11] The most labor-intensive period for many crops may be only several weeks long, and migrant and seasonal farmworkers often change employers and locations multiple times throughout the growing season. Thus, permanent housing, while closer to services and amenities such as health care or school, does not always provide ready access to work. Interviews with farmworkers have concluded that many feel powerless to advocate for themselves or change their conditions.[37]
  8. US Farmworker Housing Does Not Protect Populations at Special Risk.
  9. Farmworker populations at special risk include homeless farmworkers, women (especially pregnant women) and children living in substandard or overcrowded housing, and ethnic minority farmworkers. Children are particularly susceptible to health-related problems as a result of poor housing conditions, which can result in long-term negative effects on their health.[35] Female farmworkers and family members may be at increased risk for experiencing sexual violence.[20,38] If the victim lives in employer-provided housing, access to services is even more limited because of isolation in a rural area, fear of deportation, security around the labor camp, limited knowledge of social service agencies, and supervision by crew leaders and foremen.[1] Farmworkers with limited English proficiency experience language barriers to accessing services, and farmworkers who speak indigenous North and Central American or Asian and Pacific Islander languages may be further isolated from services that offer only Spanish as an alternative to English.[11] A study of migrant workers in the Midwest revealed that working and housing conditions were organized from best to worst among farm employees according to ethnicity and citizenship status, further contributing to health disparities.[39]

Opposing Arguments

Opponents of policies that would increase the availability of farmworker housing commonly argue either that there is no shortage of farmworker housing or that funding and capacity to provide housing and oversight are unrealistic. 

On the local level, anecdotal reports suggest that some states experience a housing surplus with extended vacancies in subsidized farmworker units, and constructing additional units would be unwarranted. Restrictions on personal conduct in housing programs and the desire to maximize income may also influence farmworkers’ decisions to live in cars, with friends, or in tent camps. Opponents may also question the capacity of local and county governments to further enforce housing codes or raise health standards. On the federal level, funding is always in short supply, resulting in unfunded policies such as the National Housing Trust Fund. Furthermore, opponents of funding for farmworker housing may contest whether federal funds should support undocumented workers.

The importance of safe and accessible housing for farmworkers outweighs these concerns, however, both as a matter of human decency and because of the importance of economic protection for the agricultural sector. While the availability of farmworker housing may vary from state to state, both the availability and affordability of housing remain an obstacle in many regions. Some communities may oppose the construction of housing for people they believe will leave after the harvest season. Indeed, the turnover in crop labor is high, with approximately a quarter of laborers replaced within 2 years.[11] However, most farmworkers self-identify as “settled” and indicate the desire to live in one place; they report difficulty acquiring more permanent housing because of their low income and the seasonal nature of agriculture.[3] Investing in housing would give farmworkers and families better access to community social and medical services while also helping growers meet their time-critical harvest needs.[40]

The US agricultural economy depends on farmworker labor, and the costs of not addressing farmworker needs could be enormous. While some argue there is no labor shortage and that an abundance of US workers are willing to perform crop labor, the supply of agricultural labor is actually dependent on large numbers of undocumented workers, and specialty crop growers are especially sensitive to changes in labor supply.[3] The availability of better short-term and long-term housing options would help growers attract a consistent workforce to meet their peak labor demands season after season.[40] Spending on housing now prevents future spending on acute medical costs, absenteeism, lost worker productivity, and other social costs stemming from poor housing or lack of housing. Prioritizing farmworker housing would contribute to the stability of the US agricultural system—a critical part of the national economy, individual livelihoods, and a sustainable food system. The United States already expends significant resources on commodity crops such as wheat, soy, and corn, while specialty crops receive fewer allocations under the US Farm Bill. Redistributing these funds could provide resources for improving farmworker housing.

Finally, some may oppose federal subsidies for undocumented workers. Human rights and justice-based arguments for comprehensive immigration reform have been addressed by other APHA policies; these include the necessity of ending discrimination and protecting residents who contribute to and enhance American communities.[12] While current legal precedence allows housing discrimination based on immigration status at the federal level, modifications to immigration policy could increase farmworkers’ eligibility for safe shelter and stable employment. Moreover, undocumented farmworkers’ access to housing and employment is economically crucial for the agricultural sector, as 50% to 70% of the entire US agricultural workforce may be undocumented.[41,42] Removing all undocumented immigrants from the United States would result in $550 billion lost in annual spending, $245 billion in lost output, and further hundreds of billions in lost tax revenue, yet these contributions by undocumented immigrants are largely unacknowledged in the national dialogue around immigration reform.[43] Without the undocumented workers on which agriculture relies, the sector stands to lose up to 45% of gross product, a higher percentage than any other industry. Clearly, broad immigration policy changes that would improve farmworker housing and health will also have positive impacts on the US economy. 

To Improve Farmworker Housing and Health, APHA recommends the following:

Position 1: Increase Availability of Affordable and Accessible Farmworker Housing That Meets Health and Safety Standards. 

Federal funding for farmworker-specific housing is inadequate, and growers face disincentives to provide on-farm housing. The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Section 514/516 loan and grant program, the only federal program that specifically targets the housing needs of farmworkers, is chronically underfunded and cannot keep up with the increasing need for farmworker housing. Between 2000 and 2008, this program financed only 268 to 818 new units each year, and funding for the entire federal program dropped from $37.7 million in 2008 to $29.1 million in 2009.[44] The shortage of federal funding also affects the availability of CBO housing options.

Farmers face economic and administrative disincentives to provide on-farm housing. Approximately half of smaller US farms operate at a loss and depend on off-farm income for support.[45] Small margins provide an incentive to decrease production costs such as labor.[41,42] While specialty crop growers depend far more on labor than large commodity farms, commodity crops receive more subsidies under the US Farm Bill. The lack of federal funds and disincentives to on-farm housing contribute to farmworker housing shortages.

Strategy 1: Federal Funding Should Be Increased for Existing Low-Income and Rural Housing Development Programs.
USDA should substantially increase the availability of farmworker housing by channeling more resources toward the 514/516 loan and grant program and providing oversight on the status of their projects.[21,46] The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the National Housing Trust, and USDA’s Rural Development, Housing, and Community Facilities Program all support infrastructure development to improve farmworker housing opportunities.[47–49] Increasing the HUD HOME Investment Partnership Program and Community Development Block Grants could be used for low-income housing projects that are designed to serve vulnerable populations like farmworkers.[47,50] The National Housing Trust Fund, enacted by Congress in 2008 but still empty, should also be funded to increase housing for low-income families.[48]

Increasing allocations for nonprofit housing organizations that serve farmworkers could also enable communities to meet their housing needs.[21] National programs could model funding for farmworker housing after Community Development Block Grants in Texas targeting colonias, unincorporated subdivisions with little or no infrastructure that developers have sold to low-income individuals.[51] The federal government currently requires states with colonias to set aside up to 10% of their state Community Development Block Grants for colonia development.[52] Creating similar national set-asides in other federal programs could open up opportunities for nonprofits and CBOs to expand their programs.

Strategy 2: USDA Should Continue and Expand Year-Round Subsidy Programs at Seasonal Housing Buildings.
Community-based seasonal housing facilities, considered one of the more innovative approaches to meeting farmworker housing needs,[23,29] struggle to remain open since they do not receive rent or rent subsidies when they are empty during the off season. USDA should immediately enact regulations for converting standard rental assistance to a year-round operating assistance program for seasonal-occupancy housing, as provided by Congress in the Affordable Housing Act of 1998. HUD should allow similar flexibility in the Section 8 Program. This would make it easier for housing programs to convert from standard assistance to year-round subsides, enabling nonprofits and other CBOs to sponsor seasonal housing for farmworkers.[21] 

Strategy 3: States and the Federal Government Should Encourage the Building of Farmworker Housing Through Tax Incentives and Credits.
By offering either tax credits or tax deductions, state and federal governments can encourage developers and other builders to construct farmworker housing. The existing federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit can be applied to farmworker housing.[53] Some states have already prioritized the development of farmworker housing through tax credit allocation.[54] Currently, each state can establish its own priorities, but states could be federally mandated to prioritize farmworker housing. Income tax breaks, as in Oregon, could offer another incentive for building farmworker housing. Oregon has successfully facilitated the construction and repair of farmworker housing by offering tax credits for up to 50% of eligible costs.[55]

Strategy 4: The Federal Government Should Support Growers Who Want to Improve On-Farm Housing for Farmworkers.
Agricultural employers who require farmworker labor are decreasing or eliminating their provision of housing to their workers, often because of financial strains.[24] The US Farm Bill disproportionally provides subsidies to commodity crops over specialty crops. Considering the high burden of labor costs for specialty crop farmers, funding from Farm Bill subsidies should be shifted toward specialty crop farmers. A shift in Farm Bill funding would open previously unavailable funding sources for farm owners to improve farmworker housing, help ensure the financial security of small-scale growers, and increase the availability of local produce as prioritized by the first lady’s “Let’s Move!” initiative. These funds could be invested in programs like the Washington State Farmworker On-Farm Housing Loan Program, which provides dollar-for-dollar loans for growers to build and repair seasonal worker housing and related infrastructure.[56] Offering a similar program at the federal level may not decrease the challenge of meeting up-to-standard housing codes, but it can offer financial assistance to growers who want to improve their on-farm facilities. Finally, the Farm Bill should include housing quality as a component of occupational health, to further incentivize the provision of available housing options for farmworkers. 

Position 2: Eliminate Discriminatory Barriers to Housing.
Today, immigration reform is primarily centered on undocumented workers, as opposed to employers and others who benefit from their presence in the United States. Historically, growers and the agricultural economy have benefited more than farmworkers from farm labor policies. The H-2A Program, the guest worker program for agricultural workers, is problematic for both growers and laborers. Although the H-2A Program represents a small percentage of hired farmworkers, abuses persist, and laborers who depend on their employer for housing are particularly vulnerable.

However, the majority of foreign-born farmworkers are not registered guest workers, and they too suffer from a fractured immigration system and resulting barriers and discrimination. Although the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin, both “alienage” (whether a person is a citizen of the United States) and legal status remain permissible bases for denying housing.[57] In addition to the terms in the Fair Housing Act, 42 states have passed ordinances preventing undocumented immigrants from obtaining housing. Since it is challenging for landlords to verify every potential tenant’s immigration status, they may discriminate on the basis of the individual’s accent, surname, appearance, or other ethnic characteristics.[57]

Language barriers and limited access to social service programs also limit farmworkers’ ability to find housing. While 84% of farmworkers are native Spanish speakers and 12% are native English speakers, others speak North and Central American indigenous dialects and Asian and Pacific Island languages.[4,58] The diminished likelihood of existing interpreter or advocacy services for these smaller populations further prevents them from accessing systems providing social services, rendering them particularly vulnerable to living in substandard conditions or even homelessness. Furthermore, almost half of farmworkers cannot speak or read English at all and have limited educational attainment.[4,19] These language and education barriers make it difficult to complete housing applications or understand eligibility requirements for community services. Limited access to services is exacerbated since health and service agencies often lack bilingual or bicultural staff members and may not have access to trained and certified translators. 

Strategy 1: The Federal Government Must Prioritize Comprehensive Immigration Reform That Includes Naturalization Opportunities.
To improve farmworker housing conditions, APHA encourages broad immigration reform that increases naturalization opportunities for undocumented workers and their families. As previous APHA policy statements have argued, “Above all, US immigration policy should narrow health disparities and help keep people from being marginalized, paying special attention to social justice, which involves fairness and equality, and, most important, human dignity.”[12] Naturalization would empower laborers to report workplace and housing violations without fear of deportation and provide avenues for access to government loans, grants, subsidies, and other housing-related social services. Workers recruited on a temporary basis who depend on their employer for sponsorship and housing are also vulnerable to wage and human rights violations. APHA supports the expansion of the H-2A Program only if revisions are made to reduce regulatory burdens for growers and also allow farmworkers the opportunity to earn legal immigration status without being attached to a particular employer.

Strategy 2: States and the Federal Government Must Assure Equitable Housing Access to Resident Immigrants Regardless of Legal Status.
Modeled after APHA Policy 9401, which addresses access to health services for undocumented immigrants,[59] this strategy advocates for national and state housing regulations to ensure that housing programs are open to all residents regardless of documentation status. This would require rescinding current language in the Fair Housing Act that allows for housing discrimination based on resident status and repealing state ordinances that require proof of legal residence. 

Strategy 3: The Federal Government, States, and CBOs Should Improve Communication Between Farmworkers, Growers, and Employees by Increasing the Number of Bilingual Housing Operators and Inspectors and Providing Education to Farmworkers.

It is essential to reduce language barriers between farmworkers and housing authorities to help ensure that the needs of farmworkers are better met. Housing inspectors must have basic multilingual skills to ensure that safety hazards can be reported. The US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) translates many publications into Spanish, hires Spanish-speaking individuals to answer emergency reporting calls, and compiles a list of fluent Spanish-speaking employees.[60] Local municipal public housing authorities and other home inspectors should follow suit by translating materials into the languages appropriate for the populations they serve. Similarly, housing operators and coordinators should be competent in communicating with farmworkers with low rates of literacy or limited English proficiency. Creating resources to aid populations with limited English and literacy skills in accessing housing would bring programs in accordance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[61]

Education must also be extended to farmworkers to help them advocate for themselves. Low educational attainment and English ability limit farmworkers’ understanding of occupational hazards as well as their ability to advocate for safer conditions and housing. Risks to the health and safety of farmworkers may be exacerbated by agricultural employers’ high-risk tolerance and skepticism of safety measures regarding both themselves and their workers.[62] Providing health education through native-language-speaking lay health promoters has been successful in improving pesticide safety knowledge and behavior[63–65]; however, these services are not widespread and remain limited to specific occupational exposures.[62] APHA encourages OSHA to implement policies that require comprehensive health and safety trainings for farmworkers that include housing rights and regulations. 

Position 3: Increase Farmworkers’ Ability to Afford Quality Housing.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that over 17% of farmworkers live in poverty, and there is ample evidence that migrant farmworkers earn disproportionately lower wages than salaried farmworkers, suggesting an even further inability to cover costs of meeting basic needs.[3] A 2001 study found that the median monthly income of farmworkers surveyed was $860 while median monthly housing cost was $380, suggesting a significant cost burden.[21] As farmworkers struggle with the costs of housing, the share of new federal spending committed to subsidized housing declined by 80% between 1976 and 2000, a trend that has continued throughout the last decade.[66] Availability of Section 8 housing vouchers also declined by 150|000 vouchers from 2005 to 2007.[67] With fewer federal funds being spent on low-income housing assistance, low-income people, including farmworkers, end up with fewer opportunities for housing.

Strategy 1: Increase the Number of Section 8 Vouchers Administered by Public Housing Agencies by Increasing Funding to HUD.
Vouchers can be applied to both rental properties and homeownership assistance programs, and will provide farmworkers with the autonomy to find housing that suits their needs.[68] 

Strategy 2: Increase USDA Funding to the Rural Housing Service.
Increased funding to Rural Housing Service (RHS) programs can expand the distribution of Section 502 direct loans that help low-income individuals or households construct or purchase homes in rural areas without requiring a down payment.[69] Funding the RHS may also ensure expansion of Rural Housing Site Loans, which provide financing for the purchase and development of housing sites for low-income families, and the Rural Repair and Rehabilitation Loans and Grant program, which helps very low-income homeowners repair and increase the health and safety of their residence with low-interest loans.[46]

Strategy 3: Provide Federal Emergency Assistance for Homeless and Displaced Farmworkers.
A federal emergency assistance program for homeless and displaced workers can be modeled after the program in Washington State, which provides Emergency Housing Voucher Assistance for migrant workers who are displaced through health and safety reasons and who cannot afford to pay for housing.[70] Although not a long-term solution, this type of assistance would allow intermediate protection of farmworkers and their families in between housing statuses. 

Position 4: Ensure That Health and Safety Standards Are Met for Existing Farmworker Housing.
American farms are diverse in their size, type of production, and demand for farmworkers; not all face diminished profit margins and not all grow labor-intensive seasonal crops. For smaller operations, the expense and administrative hassles of complying with on-farm housing regulations, codes, and standards create disincentives for growers to provide housing. In particular, the cost of providing infrastructure for water and wastewater facilities continues to be a substantial impediment to the creation of on-farm housing. Farmers may also hesitate to provide housing to avoid administrative challenges such as loan applications, unit maintenance, and farmworker complaints.[24] It is rarely in the financial interest of growers to provide on-farm housing for workers who may move on in a matter of weeks. 

Strategy 1: Increase the Capacity of Local and County Governments to Enforce Housing Codes.
Enforcement of federal regulations for hired farmworker housing has been limited.[24] Resources for inspection and enforcement are spread across multiple agencies that lack adequate staff and do not coordinate efforts.[71] Increased funding to boost the number of housing inspectors in areas with sizable farmworker populations would help improve the quality of housing available to farmworker tenants by ensuring that existing housing is safe and up to standard. Furthermore, through emphasis on the employment of housing authority staff persons from multicultural backgrounds and with abilities in languages other than English, farmworkers would be better able to assist housing authorities by reporting violations and substandard conditions to enforcement bodies. 

State and federal funding for capacity development would help local public health agencies to increase their capacity to assess whether units meet standards, to educate property owners and builders about how to implement guidelines, and to impose sanctions if standards are not met. Collaboration and coordination must also be improved between government agencies that regulate housing construction, nonprofit housing providers, community development corporations, farmworker advocates, housing developers, growers, landlords, architects, and urban planners to ensure that the meeting of housing and safety standards is prioritized. 

Strategy 2: Make Housing Codes for On-Farm Housing Healthier to Address the Unique Needs of Farmworkers.
As discussed, farmworkers and their families are at an increased risk of harm associated with direct pesticide exposure and indirect pesticide exposure from the “take-home” pathway.[36] To reduce such risks, suitable on-farm housing environments for farmworkers must include areas for the proper removal and storage of pesticide-contaminated clothing, must provide multiple showers and washing stations for large households, and must be a safe distance from fields sprayed with pesticides. Existing housing codes frequently do not address the maintenance or remediation of substandard conditions in existing buildings.[71] Codes must be refined to reflect current knowledge of healthful housing, including such factors as exposure to toxic substances. Revised codes and guidelines can promote public health’s role in housing consultation, education, and enforcement. 

Strategy 3: Provide Financial and Technical Assistance for Housing Remediation to Farmers and Other Agencies.
Complex permitting processes, confusing regulations, and the expense of compliance with housing standards may all present barriers to both the construction and remediation of farmworker housing. Technical assistance should be readily available to growers, nonprofit organizations, and local governments on issues related to the development of seasonal farmworker housing, including planning and design, building codes, temporary worker housing regulations, financing options, and management operations.[70] Since regulations vary from state to state, assistance will have to be determined at the state level but can be funded at federal, state, and local levels.

Position 5: Increase Understanding of the Health and Housing Needs of Farmworker Populations.
Key national surveys that assess aspects of farmworker housing and health should continue to be conducted regularly, and findings should be made readily available to the public. However, more information is needed to identify the unique housing needs of farmworker subgroups, such as migrant as opposed to seasonal workers, or housing for single migrants as opposed to housing for families. A significant obstacle to understanding the relationship between housing and health is that these subjects are rarely integrated in a single survey, limiting researchers’ abilities to fully assess connections between the two.[72] Furthermore, the needs of the most hidden or vulnerable farmworker groups are difficult to assess through standard survey methodologies and outreach. While over 20% of noncitizen farmworkers in the United States report their race as Asian, little information is available about the language abilities and needs of this population and documents are rarely translated into Thai, Tagalog, or other languages.[3]

Strategy 1: Continue and Expand Nationwide Surveys on Farmworker Health and Housing.
Both the National Agricultural Workers Survey[4] and the Survey of Farmworker Housing Conditions[21] are critical links to understanding farmworker issues. More detailed local surveys must also be designed to provide information specific to farming regions so that state and local agencies can identify solutions appropriate to their communities. Studies of farm labor housing and of housing-related exposures to health risks should be expanded to evaluate the health status of individual workers. A national survey with a randomized sample could provide valuable information about housing and health disparities and provide federal agencies with the information necessary for informed funding decisions.

Action Steps
APHA believes that increasing the accessibility and affordability of farmworker housing that meets health and safety standards is a public health imperative and should be addressed immediately at both the federal and state levels. Accordingly, APHA—

  1. Urges federal and state agencies to dedicate resources to creating affordable and accessible farmworker housing that meets health and safety standards.
  2. Urges comprehensive immigration reform that would allow all persons to access housing opportunities and other social services.
  3. Urges state and federal authorities to provide language training opportunities to housing coordinators, operators, and inspectors; to provide multilingual guides to help housing authorities increase communication with farmworkers; and to prioritize applicants with multilingual skills when hiring for new housing positions.
  4. Calls on OSHA to introduce regulations requiring comprehensive, accessible, and culturally appropriate health and safety education for farmworkers that include housing rights and regulations.
  5. Encourages state and local governments to increase their capacity to ensure safe and healthy housing for farmworkers by collaborating with community housing advocacy groups, nonprofit housing organizations, community development corporations, builders, homeowners, landlords, architects, and urban planners.
  6. Encourages local health jurisdictions to systematically collect and analyze local data related to housing and health and for the US Department of Labor to include additional questions in the National Agricultural Worker Survey, including resident satisfaction with housing and the health status of individuals.


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