- Jeremy Schwartz American-Statesman Staff
In emotional testimony Tuesday, Texas farmworkers and advocates urged a House committee to pass a bill that would strengthen inspections of housing for agricultural workers, increase penalties on violators and require state regulators to look for unlicensed facilities.
Justino De Leon, a longtime farmworker from Pharr, told members of the House Committee on Urban Affairs that he often was forced to live in unlicensed facilities with appalling conditions. “We slept on the floor, on cardboard, with a broken air conditioning,” he said. “Some had to sleep in their trucks. There were lots of mosquitoes.”
Daniela Dwyer, head of the farmworker program at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc., showed the committee photos taken at an unlicensed housing facility in Premont last week with broken windows, large insects and no furnishings. Many such facilities are suspected to exist across the state, out of the reach of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which is tasked with inspecting farmworker housing facilities.
In 2015, the department 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.
State Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, the author of HB 2365, said the bill was a response to the fact that “we’ve gotten away from minimum standards” to protect the workers who power an industry that generates $8 billion a year.
“For too long we’ve overlooked when an agency… fails to do its job,” he said. “Inaction, to me, is inexcusable.”
The committee will vote on the bill at a later date.
Romero’s bill, along with a Senate version filed by State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, comes after a2016 American-Statesman investigationfound 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.
The Statesman investigation found that other states provide far more resources to inspect farmworker housing and uncover facilities operating without licenses.
In 2015, for example, Michigan spent $1.15 million on farmworker housing inspections; Florida spent $828,000.
The Legislative Budget Board estimated that by increasing fees and conducting more proactive inspections, the bill could generate a positive return of $26,276 by 2019.
Legislation would also allow the department to funnel the money it raises from licensing fees — $10,250 in 2016 — into inspection efforts.
Romero also presented HB 1879 which would require the housing department to study the availability of farmworker housing in the state.
In 2006, the state conducted a similar study, which recommended that inspectors focus on uncovering unlicensed facilities and embark on an outreach effort in the Rio Grande Valley and Panhandle to inform farmworkers of their right to inspected and licensed housing.
Neither recommendation came to fruition.