Yakima mayor backs farmworker housing in city

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YAKIMA HERALD – PHIL FEROLITO – Yakima Mayor Kathy Coffey said Wednesday that H-2A farmworker housing should be supported in the city.

She made her statement after a public meeting that drew more than 80 local and state officials and growers to discuss H-2A housing and where it should be located.

“I would like us to work with the growers to see what we can work out,” she said in the foyer of the Yakima Convention Center. “It’s a major industry in our county and I think we need to work with them the best that we can.”

The Yakima Valley Conference of Governments — which provides municipalities with planning and other technical services — organized the meeting. Officials from cities across the county, as well as the state Department of Agriculture, the Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing and the Northwest Justice Project, gathered with farmers to discuss farmworker housing.

Opinions were mixed about whether such temporary guest worker housing projects should be located in the city, where there are stores and other services, or on farms in rural remote areas.

A shrinking domestic labor force in the fields is forcing more reliance on guest workers. Growers must provide them housing.

Last year Rob Valicoff converted the former Fairbridge Inn and Suites at 1507 N. First St. into H-2A housing.

There, he housed more than 270 guest workers for his orchards and a few hundred more for other growers. Those workers provided an economic spark in the area, spending their money at nearby stores and restaurants, Valicoff said.

“We had a great experience as far as what we did last year,” he said.

City Councilman Jason White, who is on the city’s economic development committee, said the infusion of money led to businesses reopening.

“It’s pretty astonishing to see just how many businesses have reopened — restaurants — because of that,” he said.

But Councilwoman Dulce Gutierrez voiced concern about whether an influx of H-2A housing would further stress the area’s housing shortage, where the rental market’s vacancy rate is less than 1 percent.

“I hope we can pull together to see if there are other areas of the county to invest (in H-2A housing),” she said.

Refurbishing buildings that aren’t being used or building new ones to house farmworkers wouldn’t further stress the housing market, said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League.

“So these kinds of things should be strongly considered,” he said.

Valicoff’s housing project on North First isn’t the first in Yakima, said city Community Development Director Jan Davenport.

Some units at the Quail Ridge apartments near the intersection of Mead and 16th avenues have been used for H-2A housing in the past, she said.

Gempler said he’s worked with landlords in Selah for years on providing housing for guest workers.

Yakima recently updated its ordinance governing hotels and motels. Under the updates, motels and hotels are to use 90 percent of their rooms for short-term stays — 30 days or less — with 10 percent allowed to be used for longer stays.

The city also established a permitting process that would allow hotels and motels to be completely converted into residential lodging. Before that could happen, the city would need to review its ordinance governing boardinghouses to make it adaptable to a guest-worker housing program.

“I think that’s a discussion we need to have,” Coffey said.

Posted by: Phil Ferolito, Yakima Herald, January 31, 2019

Picture: SHAWN GUST, Yakima Herald-Republic file

The former FairBridge Inn and Suites has been converted to temporary farmworker housing.