- Jeremy Schwartz American-Statesman Staff
A bill filed Wednesday by state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, would overhaul the oversight of farmworker housing in Texas, calling for stricter housing inspections, tougher penalties for violators and enhanced community outreach.
The bill, co-authored by Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, comes after a 2016 American-Statesman investigation found numerous deficiencies in Texas’ unfunded inspection program for housing provided to farmworkers who move around the state to harvest crops and gin cotton.
In 2015, Texas spent less than $2,500 to conduct about 40 inspections of housing facilities provided by growers and labor contractors, most clustered in cotton-growing regions of the Panhandle. As a result, an estimated 9 in 10 Texas migrant farmworkers lack access to licensed housing that meets minimum health and safety standards required by state and federal law.
Other states with large farmworker populations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to inspect farmworker housing and bring unlicensed housing into compliance, the Statesman investigation found.
“We can’t allow this antiquated system to continue in this state,” Rodríguez said. “We are a big agricultural state, and we haven’t modernized our regulatory framework for addressing migrant farmworker housing.”
The new bill doesn’t call for the Legislature to come up with any new money to fund more aggressive inspections, something Rodríguez said would likely be untenable in the current climate. Instead, it requires the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to dedicate any penalties the department collects toward the inspection efforts. Rodríguez also intends to require the department to funnel the money that it raises from licensing fees — $10,250 in 2016 — into inspection efforts.
The bill requires the state to immediately suspend licenses for severe health and safety violations, and it allows the department to come up with a more aggressive penalty schedule for repeat violators.
Rodríguez said he hopes the bill will lead to more aggressive enforcement; the Statesman investigation found that inspectors haven’t levied a single enforcement action against operators of farmworker housing, even after they failed multiple inspections.
In one case, state regulators took no action even after discovering a Van Horn chile farm where workers were housed in unventilated shipping containers and forced to urinate and defecate in the brush.
The bill also seeks to beef up outreach efforts aimed at ferreting out deficiencies as well as unlicensed housing. It requires inspectors to conduct private interviews with occupants and forces operators to post bilingual information on how residents can make anonymous complaints. The department currently does little to publicize its complaint line, and critics complain that it isn’t “Spanish-accessible.” The department wasn’t aware of a single complaint as of 2016, a situation critics said illustrated the department’s lack of outreach to farmworker communities.
The bill also calls for inspectors to seek out unlicensed housing across the state, and it establishes a quota of proactive inspections of suspected noncompliant facilities.
Texas officials have long known that the majority of migratory Texas farmworkers live in substandard, unlicensed housing. A 2005 report called for an outreach campaign in agricultural areas aimed at uncovering unlicensed facilities, an effort that apparently never materialized. The department has no budget for outreach efforts.
Officials with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid say that leaves entire regions off the radar, such as the area from Pearsall to Uvalde in South Texas.
A Statesman review of inspection reports also revealed lax enforcement when inspectors discovered problems.
After the newspaper inquired about a facility in the South Plains that received passing grades in 2014 and 2015 despite having the same five “deviations,” (including unsanitary mattresses, screens in poor condition and no first aid kits), state officials said they would stop issuing licenses based on promises to fix issues. The proposed bill would formalize that change and require the department to make inspection reports available online. (The Statesman obtained the reports through a Texas open records law request.)
Kathy Tyler, who directs farmworker housing programs for the nonprofit Motivation Education and Training Inc., said the bill is urgently needed: “While Texas prides itself on being resourceful and spending so little on this program, its ability to do more would protect workers from dire housing conditions, and the consumers of food from the potential ill-health effects spilling over from bad housing conditions.”