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North central Washington has more housing for migrant farmworkers this season, despite the closure of a 350-bed short-term tent camp in East Wenatchee that operated for five years.

Three farmworker housing camps opened this spring in the Wenatchee area, and two growers in the area have new tent camps to accommodate more than 90 workers each, making a total of 560 new beds, according to Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association.

The Sage Bluff housing project at Malaga, which has 126 beds, was built by the Washington Growers League, in collaboration with the Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing in Yakima. It has three clusters of seven insulated cabins, each of which has bunks for six people, a table, chairs, refrigerator, air conditioning, and a heater. Each 400-square-foot cabin has a small porch with a bench.

The camp has a large, communal self-service kitchen with individual food lockers. Residents can eat in a spacious dining room with television or in a covered outdoor dining area. The camp has bathrooms with a total of 16 showers, a laundry facility, and a playground.

The development was financed largely with a $2.1 million grant and a $905,000 loan from the Washington State Department of Community Trade and Economic Development. A $125,000 loan from Northwest Farm Credit Services paid for equipment and furnishings.

CTED administers the Housing Trust Fund, which provides funding to local governments and nonprofit organizations to develop housing for low-income and special-needs populations. A set-aside within the trust fund provides funding specifically for farmworker housing, which is considered a state priority.

Mike Gempler, executive director of the Growers League, said that CTED is subsidizing the operation and maintenance initially. It will be open from cherry harvest until apple harvest and is designed to serve people working within a 25- to 30-mile radius. The charge to stay there is $9 per person per night. If there’s a demonstrated need, the camp could be doubled in size, Gempler said.

Tent camps

"This is amazing," said Stemilt Hill grower Kyle Mathison, as he toured Sage Bluff on the opening day. He said the cherry industry depends on workers to get its world-famous cherries picked, and to get good workers, the industry needs good housing such as that.

He was one of four growers who had signed up even before it opened to lease beds for their workers. Jesse Lane, housing program manager for the Washington Growers League, said he limited growers to 36 beds each to make the housing available to more people.

Next door to Sage Bluff is a new development called Columbia Pointe, built by the Housing Authority of Chelan County and Wenatchee to accommodate 128 migrant workers. The Housing Authority just completed another seasonal housing project called Vista Del Rio in East Wenatchee with 126 beds. Another seasonal housing project under construction in Othello that is scheduled to open next spring will provide 106 beds. Those projects also received funding from CTED.

"There’s a tremendous amount of progress because of CTED’s efforts," Mayer said.

Priority

Five years ago, the department established a separate department for farmworker housing and dedicated staff to work specifically on seasonal housing.

Mayer said that previously people attempted different kinds of seasonal housing projects but because of the regulatory red tape and the frustration, more often than not they gave up.

CTED staff made a commitment to try to make seasonal worker housing more feasible, he said, and took the time to learn about county, state, and federal housing regulations, and identify and solve the roadblocks.

"They’ve had support from the governor’s office in recognizing that seasonal farmworker housing is different from other types of affordable housing," he said.

CTED reports that there were 11,509 beds for migrant farmworkers in the state, up from only 6,808 in 2004.

Since 2004, the department has provided $21 million of funding to provide housing for seasonal workers or support migrant camps. Because seasonal housing doesn’t typically generate enough money to cover operation and maintenance, the department has provided operating support to some projects.

It also provided almost $6 million in loans for infrastructure and construction to expand on-farm housing. It also funds the Rent-a-Tent program, which is administered by the Growers League.

Mayer said that the recent increase in seasonal worker housing is encouraging, though more is still needed. He is concerned about how the state’s budget problems might impact CTED’s work.

Janet Abbett, housing manager at CTED, said less funding will be available for farmworker housing in the 2009-2011 biennium beginning July 1, but the amounts budgeted are good, considering how drastically the state’s budget has had to be cut.

"Housing is an important part of the economy," Abbett said. "Industry depends on the work force, and they need to have housing for their workers. Housing construction creates jobs, and it supports the economy, too. It’s a priority, but there are just so many competing demands."

In the last biennium, the Housing Trust Fund was funded at $200 million, with $14 million set aside for farmworker housing. For the coming biennium, it will be funded at $100 million, with $7 million set aside for farmworker housing.

Loans to growers for on-farm housing come from a different source. The department had $4 million to offer for infrastructure loans in the last biennium, and a supplemental $2 million last year for construction loans. For the coming biennium, there will be $2.5 million for infrastructure loans and $1 million for construction.

Abbett said the need for housing is still great, particularly in areas where more cherries have been planted. "The trend is a higher demand for seasonal workers, rather than year round. We can expect that to continue."