- Jeremy Schwartz American-Statesman Staff
Texas lawmakers approved a funding boost for the state’s farmworker housing inspection program that will more than quadruple the amount of money regulators spend to ensure housing meets minimum health and safety standards.
The budget rider, passed as part of the Legislature’s adoption of a two-year, $216.8 billion budget Saturday, represents a small victory for lawmakers and farmworker housing advocates who had been pushing to overhaul the state’s inspection program.
While bills aimed at making inspection efforts more aggressive died during the legislative session, the budget rider will ensure that money raised by licensing and inspection fees is funneled back into the inspection program.
That funding — estimated at $10,250 per year — represents an increase over the less than $2,500 the Texas Department of Community and Housing Affairs spent on inspections in 2015. Previously, money raised through fees ended up in the state’s general fund.
While noting that the funding amount is relatively small, Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, who authored the rider along with Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, said that he and advocates would “put pressure on the agency to use that money and be more aggressive in their inspections and enforcement.”
A 2016 American-Statesman investigation found that Texas badly trails most other states with large migratory farmworker populations in funding inspections. For example, Michigan spent $1.1 million on inspections in 2015; Florida spent $828,000. The investigation also found that the state housing department had not levied a single enforcement action against operators of migrant farmworker facilities since at least 2005, even after they failed inspections.
Advocates and lawmakers have pushed Texas regulators to be more proactive in finding and licensing what are believed to be large numbers of housing facilities operating outside the law. By one estimate, as many as 9 in 10 of the state’s farmworkers stay in housing that doesn’t meet state and federal standards.
State inspectors in 2015 conducted 40 inspections of housing facilities, mostly operated by a stable group of growers in the cotton-growing regions of the Panhandle.
At legislative committee hearings, migratory farmworkers told lawmakers of poor conditions in places like Premont, near Corpus Christi, that have typically been off the radar of state inspectors.
The bills would have made it easier for farmworkers to submit complaints about substandard housing, raised penalties against housing operators who skirt the law, and required the housing department to study the availability and condition of farmworker housing.
“It’s beyond disappointing that our legislation, which would have reformed TDHCA into the responsive, proactive regulator it’s supposed to be, did not ultimately pass,” Rodriguez said. “We’ll keep working with the agency and my fellow lawmakers over the interim so we’re better positioned to pass an even stronger bill next session.”