Lawmakers push for more aggressive farmworker housing inspections


What We Reported

A four-month American-Statesman investigation has found that Texas does next to nothing to ensure decent housing for the migrant farmworkers who help power an $8 billion industry. Despite confirmed reports of substandard housing, Texas has issued no penalties since 2005. And 9 in 10 migrant farmworkers lack access to licensed and inspected housing.

A pair of border-area state lawmakers say they will push for more aggressive enforcement of the state’s housing inspection law for migratory farmworkers in the wake of an American-Statesman investigation that found numerous deficiencies in Texas’ unfunded inspection program.

“The state has fallen in its responsibility to care for farmworkers,” said state Sen. José Rodriguez, D-El Paso. “A lot of other states have made progress on farmworker housing issues. Texas, I hate to say, has not.”

Rodriguez said that during the next legislative session, in 2017, he plans to introduce legislation on farmworker housing that could include additional funding for the state’s inspection program.

Last year, Texas spent less than $2,500 to conduct about 40 inspections of housing facilities provided by growers and labor contractors. Most are clustered in cotton-growing regions of the Panhandle. As a result, 9 in 10 migrant farmworkers in Texas lack access to licensed housing that meets minimum health and safety standards spelled out by state and federal law. A 2012 survey found that at least eight rural counties are devoid of licensed farmworker housing and need more than 1,000 units to meet demand.

Other states with large farmworker populations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to inspect farmworker housing and uncover unlicensed housing and bring it into compliance, the Statesman investigation found. “You’ve got to provide funding for an agency to do its job,” Rodriguez said.

The Statesman reported on one housing situation near Van Horn where farmworkers said they were forced to sleep in unventilated storage containers and on makeshift beds, such as a door set on top of a tractor tire. Even after state regulators learned of the situation, they didn’t fine the farm’s operators. The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, whose Manufactured Housing Division oversees the inspection program, hasn’t levied a single enforcement action since it took over the program a decade ago, according to the agency.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, said in a statement Tuesday that his office is working with farmworker and housing advocates to “develop the right initiative to make protecting the lifeblood of the state’s agriculture industry a top priority.”

Daniela Dwyer, head of the farmworker program at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Inc., which pursues claims of substandard housing on behalf of farmworkers, said the state needs more full-time inspectors during the harvest season. Currently the state uses manufactured housing inspectors, who spent 68 hours conducting migrant farmworker housing inspections in 2015, according to agency records.

“We need inspectors who can be dispatched to different parts of the state because there’s a lot of ground cover,” she said.

Dwyer also called on the state to produce outreach materials, public service announcements and a bilingual complaint hotline to help get the word out about the inspection program and licensing requirements.

Several farmworkers interviewed by the Statesman said they had never heard that temporary housing provided to them is regulated by the state and subject to inspections.

Kathy Tyler, who directs farmworker housing programs for Motivation, Education and Training, Inc., suggested a legislatively mandated council of farmworker stakeholders to advise the housing department on outreach efforts.

Lucio, who co-sponsored the bill putting inspections under the housing department’s authority in 2005, blamed the department for not asking lawmakers for additional money to conduct outreach and seek out unlicensed housing.

“We need our state leaders to be more sensitive to the housing needs of Texans, especially of our agriculture and migrant workers,” he said.

Housing department officials have said they do their best given the lack of funding, noting that they reduce the program’s cost by using manufactured housing inspectors.

The agency “believes it is meeting its statutory mandates regarding migrant farm worker housing with the funding appropriated by the Legislature,” agency spokesman Michael Lyttle said in a statement Tuesday. “When we have reason to believe unlicensed activity is occurring we investigate and address it.”

It’s unclear how successful a push for enhanced regulation — and funding — will be in the Legislature.

Asked if Gov. Greg Abbott supported funding the inspection program, spokesman John Wittman said in a statement: “Governor Abbott expects TDHCA to follow the statute set forth by the legislature and inspect any housing facility reported to be operating out of compliance with state law.”

The offices of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus declined to comment.



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