An example of farmworker housing that was built with a loan from Washington State’s Farmworker Housing Infrastructure Program.

An example of farmworker housing that was built with a loan from Washington State’s Farmworker Housing Infrastructure Program.

The popular zero- and low-interest loan program for growers developing or restoring on-farm housing for seasonal farmworkers survived recent state budget cuts and has $3.5 million available for loans, according to the Washington State Department of Commerce.

Pat Arnold, who runs the state’s Farmworker Housing Infrastructure Program, said program officials were thrilled to receive state appropriations for the two-year budget cycle that runs from 2009 to 2011. “We were as pleased as we could be to receive the appropriations and to have funds for both infrastructure and construction loans,” she said. The state has $2.5 million available to growers for infrastructure projects and $1 million for construction.

Applications for the farmworker housing loans are accepted at any time, Arnold said. Loans are made until the money runs out. However, she encourages growers considering housing projects to work well in advance, as the loan and permitting process can take six to nine months.

Washington’s farmworker housing loan program, one of the few state-funded programs in the nation, has been in existence since 2006. Before that, federal funds were used to administer a similar loan program, explained Janet Abbett of Washington’s commerce department. New York has a similar state-funded program, making low-interest loans available to growers, she noted.

Last year, the commerce department loaned about $2.5 million to growers. Since 2006, about $8 million has funded 56 new and 14 existing housing projects. All told, the funds have created or preserved more than 3,000 beds in the state, according to Abbett.

Examples of eligible infrastructure projects are those that deal with drinking water treatment and supply (including wells), electrical work and power, engineering services for septic and water, excavation and grading, and more. Loans are also available for construction or rehabilitation/replacement of housing or required service facilities, such as kitchen, dining, bath, toilet, and laundry.

Grower experiences

Orchardist David Douglas, of Pasco, received a loan last year to build housing for 48 beds in central Washington. The housing consists of three units, each with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a common area. Much of the loan money, which represented about 25 to 30 percent of the total cost, was used below the ground for water and septic systems, Douglas said.

“The no- and low-interest loan is certainly a help,” he said, adding that for the zero percent infrastructure loan, it turns into a grant and is forgiven if the housing remains in compliance with program regulations over the 15-year term of the loan.

Although Douglas hired a consultant to handle the project submissions, he said Arnold helped with the application process. “She made a site visit before we started the process and made suggestions about issues that would need to be addressed, like the water system,” he said. “It can be daunting for growers just getting started without some help.”

Sam and Kristie Willsey, pear growers in Cashmere, Washington, used the program to build apartment-style housing for up to six workers. “When you’re a small grower, and you can’t guarantee employment for months on end, you need a way to attract workers,” Sam Willsey said. “We’re using nice housing to do that.”

He noted that participating in the program takes perseverance and attention to detail, and complying with farmworker housing regulations is complicated and requires a commitment on the grower’s part.

Wenatchee’s McDougall & Sons has used the on-farm housing program to assist in building three housing projects and rehabilitating one, representing 200 beds, according to Mike Brown, who manages the grower-packer’s housing.

The new housing projects used manufactured bunkhouse-style units and have been built in several locations in eastern Washington, he said, adding that the manufactured housing is self-contained with bathrooms, kitchens, and eating areas.

Brown said the loan program has worked very well for McDougall and has helped them create a more stable labor force. However, growers who are considering building on-farm housing must also think about management and maintenance of the housing. “They don’t take care of themselves,” he said.

Overseeing the company’s housing projectsmanaging, maintaining, planning and directing new projectsis a full-time job, he said. “You need to follow certain steps when participating in the loan program, which can take awhile the first time you go through it. But Pat Arnold is very dedicated and committed to helping growers work through the program.”

He believes the program has been a benefit to the state’s tree fruit industry and has encouraged growers to build more housing for farmworkers.