USDA Administrator Talks Oregon Farmworker Housing

USDA Rural Housing Administrator Joaquin Altoro spent the week traveling the state to learn more about Oregon’s farmworker and rural housing needs. The various stakeholders he met had one thing in common, he said.

“People know very well what the problem is,” Altoro said. “You’re clear on the issues. And you come together and really push hard for what’s next.”

That clarity gives Oregon farmers and housing advocates an edge, Altoro said. Identifying a problem is the first step to solving it, and that’s exactly what Altoro said his agency can help do.

USDA Rural Development deals with “all things rural,” Altoro said. Agriculture, in this case, is a loose umbrella under which rural housing and community infrastructure fit.

The Altoro office specifically deals with housing in three different ways: through single-family home ownership loans, multi-family housing assistance, and, occasionally, rental vouchers. It also helps fund “community facilities” like fire stations or schools — any “infrastructure that provides community benefits,” Altoro said.

“Put them together, these are all the components of a resilient community,” he said.

In Oregon, USDA Rural Development oversees more than 40 programs and nearly $500 million in investments annually, according to spokesman Max Sprague.

Altoro visited Yamhill, Wasco, Deschutes and Wheeler counties. His visit included tours of on-farm housing facilities and meetings with farmers, developers and non-profit housing advocacy organizations. He also spent time with members of the Oregon tribe.

He said the purpose of the trip was to better understand “what works and what doesn’t” for Oregon’s farmworker housing providers.

What’s not working?

Oregonians told Altoro that the cost of land is one of the biggest barriers to providing housing for agricultural workers and low-income people.

“It’s crazy, like before you even put a shovel in the ground… the cost of land has gone up over the years,” Altoro said.

Even with land, building and maintaining housing is expensive. Farmers told Altoro that most of the resources for farmworker housing are used for new construction projects, but renovation and rehabilitation also cost money.

“It was healthy to hear the people on the farm, the arborists, say ‘don’t forget us,'” Altoro said.

Right to left: Administrator Joaquin Altoro, Wasco County Commissioner Kathy Schwartz and USDA RD State Director Margi Hoffmann listen as Wasco County arborists discuss farm worker housing.

Labor and material costs are also increasingly prohibitive, Altoro said.

Off-farm housing providers told Altoro they want more direct access and communication with the agency. It’s something Altoro said the federal government has been prioritizing all of its agencies since President Joe Biden decree 2021 on “the transformation of the federal customer experience”.

The need for off-farm housing is also increasing. Most Oregon farmworkers — 84%, according to the Oregon Law Center — permanently reside in the communities where they work.

“In farmworker housing, it’s not just the farmworker,” Altoro said. “We welcome families.”

Many families live in on-farm housing, Altoro said, but Oregon is also the third-largest provider of off-farm housing in the nation.

Off-farm housing developers and nonprofits said the biggest challenges with housing developments occur long before projects are launched. Federal aid should consider technical assistance and pre-development, which is “the riskiest part,” Altoro said.

What works?

Oregon has a solid foundation on which to build and improve housing for farmworkers, Altoro said.

On the one hand, there is already a “strong community” of people trying to find new solutions.

“I’m impressed with the collaboration of people from all types of industries,” Altoro said. “People are really trying to organize around innovation.”

Oregon already has a “strong community” of actors working to build and improve housing for farmworkers, Altoro said.

And the people of Oregon clearly know what they need.

Joaquin Altoro speaks with Peter Hainey, Executive Director of CASA of Oregon, about low-income housing and work.

A conversation marked Altoro.

He was talking about the language of affordable housing versus workforce housing. HUD does not distinguish between the two, but some housing authorities classify them differently based on income.

“Someone said something wonderful,” Altoro recalled. “They said, ‘housing for agricultural workers is labor housing. We try to divide them. We say, ‘those people over there working on the farm, it’s something different.’ But it’s exactly the same. It’s the workforce that probably sustains one of the most important things in our lives: access to food.”

“It was a big ‘aha’ moment for me,” Altoro said.

Shannon Sollitt covers farmworkers through Report for America, a program that aims to support local journalism and democracy by reporting on under-reported issues and communities. Send tips, questions and comments to [email protected]

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