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House committee approves tougher inspections of farmworker housing


Highlights

American-Statesman investigation in 2016 found regulators of farmworker housing had never levied a fine.

Investigation also found that a tiny fraction of migrant farmworkers in Texas get state-inspected housing.

A pair of bills that would strengthen state inspections of farmworker housing, stiffen penalties on violators and require state regulators to look for unlicensed facilities passed the House Urban Affairs Committee with 7-0 votes on Thursday.

With just weeks remaining in the legislative calendar, the legislation’s window could be closing quickly though. The House Calendars Committee still needs to send the bill to the House floor and the Senate Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs has yet to set a hearing on the Senate version of the bill, authored by Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso.

At a House Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday, House bill author Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, author of HB 2365, called inaction on the legislation “inexcusable.”

“For too long we’ve overlooked when an agency… fails to do its job,” he said.

The bills were filed after a four-month American-Statesman investigation found that the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs had not levied a single enforcement action against operators of migrant farmworker facilities since at least 2005, even after multiple failed inspections.

At a Van Horn chile farm, for example, workers said they were forced to sleep in unventilated shipping containers and make beds out of truck tires and wooden planks.

The investigation also found that Texas’ unfunded inspection program ensures licensed housing for just a tiny fraction of farmworkers. Most housing facilities provided for workers are well off of inspectors’ radars.

Romero’s bill would require inspectors to take a more proactive approach to finding such facilities.

In rolling out SB 1025 last month, Rodriguez said: “It is time for the state of Texas to be dragged into the 21st century.”

The House Urban Affairs Committee also approved a companion bill that would require the state housing department to study the availability of housing for migratory farmworkers, who power an $8 billion industry in Texas.



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