The $200 million package for housing and the homeless that Gov. Tina Kotek needs to sign includes $5 million for housing on farms.
House Bill 2001, a big housing bill that aims to declare a housing emergency and invest millions of dollars in housing infrastructure, includes the grant program.
The funds for farmworker housing would help agricultural employers maintain housing units and make them safer and healthier for workers.
At $5 million, the grant program is one of the smaller parts of the housing bill. Other parts of the bill include money for rental assistance and preventing evictions, building affordable housing, and shelter beds with low barriers to entry.
The Oregon OSHA registry says about 10,000 farmworkers and their families live in about 400 registered agricultural housing units yearly. Growers say keeping these units in good shape is expensive and that the current state aid isn’t enough. A grant program could help make up the difference.
The grant program looks much like what growers and people who support growers asked for in the agricultural housing task force set up by former Gov. Kate Brown. It also answers growers’ complaints about the Agricultural Workforce Housing Tax Credit, which is supposed to help farmers pay for the costs of maintaining their homes but, according to some growers, doesn’t work.
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What Would The $5 Million Be Used For?
The Oregon Department of Agriculture would be in charge of running the $5 million grant program.
Once the rule is in place, agricultural employers who provide housing for their workers could apply, as long as they follow health and safety rules and have registered their housing units with Oregon OSHA.
The bill says nothing about who can apply or how to do it. This would be up to the Department of Agriculture to figure out.
Oregon OSHA is just starting to look at and change the rules for housing on farms. If the rules change or get bigger, the Department of Agriculture and Oregon OSHA would take 30 days to update the criteria for applying for a grant. Those applications that follow the new rules will be given more attention.
This part of the bill also provides about $500,000 for making and running the program.
How Did We Get Here?
On-farm agricultural housing is a shrinking but persistent need. About 10% of the agricultural workers in the state, or about 10,000 people, live in registered farm labor housing for at least part of the year.
Employers who give their workers housing must register the units and ensure they meet certain health and safety standards. But grower advocates say it’s expensive to keep housing in good shape, and state funding has usually gone toward building new housing or community-based housing.
In 1989, a farmworker housing tax credit was made to help pay for building costs. Most tax credits are now taken by people who build community-based housing, not by farmers.
At the task force and housing facilitation team meetings, growers and advocates said that a tax credit wouldn’t help farms that don’t already make much money.
The $5 million grant program idea came from Brown’s agricultural housing task force, which ended in December. It was added as an amendment to HB 2001 and passed on February 28.
At the same time, Oregon OSHA is just starting to implement new rules and regulations for housing on farms. The language and content of these rules haven’t been decided yet, but people who support growers say that following them will be very expensive.
“The [grant] program will provide needed financial assistance to farmers struggling under the weight of increased regulatory and inflationary pressures and allow them to make health and safety improvements to agricultural workforce housing this year,” Oregon Farm Bureau testified in a letter supporting HB 2001.
Both the House and the Senate passed HB 2001 and its sister bill, HB 5019, with support from both parties. Kotek is expected to sign the housing package.