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A Housing Plan for Wine Workers

Washington's industry thrives, but migrant workers need shelter

by Peter Mitham
washington vineyards
Washington state vineyards may seem endless, but that's not the case with housing for farm workers, which is short supply as the state's booming economy attracts growing numbers of documented and undocumented workers.
Prosser, Wash.—An ambitious plan for new housing in the heart of wine country underscores the rising number of migrant workers employed in Washington state’s growing wine industry. A study earlier this year by the Pew Hispanic Center reported that an estimated 230,000 illegal immigrants were living in Washington last year, a 35% increase from 2007.

Critics blame looser controls over driver licensing and other factors that make the state attractive to illegal workers, but Eastern Washington is also home to one of the strongest economies in the nation. Government funding for cleanup of the Hanford nuclear site plus strong job growth in the manufacturing, health care and food processing sectors create demand for workers. This, in turn, increases opportunities in the agriculture sector, including vineyards, for migrants in positions that might otherwise filled by local workers.

As has occurred historically in boom towns anywhere, news reports also indicate that the influx of people is feeding demand for services from health care for the uninsured to food and shelter for those on the bottom rungs of the employment ladder. Speaking to growers at the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers conference in Kennewick three years ago, Karen Lewis, Washington State University Extension agent for Grant and Adams counties, said rising living costs were a major factor in the demands of migrant laborers. Decent wages are good, but compensation that enhances lifestyle is equally important.

According to a 2006 survey by the Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust, approximately 30% of farmworkers in the state typically reside outside the state. Housing consequently figures as one of their biggest chronic concerns. It’s equally pressing for those whose families accompany them.

The need has prompted Catholic Charities Housing Services, a division of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Yakima, to plan construction of as many as 120 units on an 11.6-acre site in Prosser over a 10-year period. The three-phase project would include two-story townhomes and recreation amenities.

Bryan Ketcham
Bryan Ketcham is director of Catholic Charities Housing Services.

The first phase wouldn’t commence until at least 2013. One of the phases will serve agriculture workers, Bryan Ketcham, director of Catholic Charities Housing Services, told Wines & Vines. Workers in the farm sector currently occupy about 400 of the 503 rental units Catholic Charities already manages. The organization has also built 44 single-family homes.

“We try to provide play space for children, green open spaces for young adults and adults to play, and we also do a community center with a computer room with Internet access,” Ketcham said, noting that projects typically average two children per unit in addition to two adults.

A site near Prosser’s Vintners Village was originally considered for the project, but community opposition forced selection of a new site. The original property was deemed inappropriate because, despite multi-family zoning, the community felt a residential project wasn’t an appropriate neighbor. Catholic Charities found a new site and is proceeding with its rezoning.

The status of migrant workers is contentious; Oregon’s Susan Sokol Blosser was taken to task by incumbent Rep. Jim Weidner (R-McMinnville) during her unsuccessful bid last fall as a Democrat to represent McMinnville in the state’s legislature. Weidner accused Sokol Blosser of knowingly employing illegal immigrants in her family’s vineyard years ago.

Sokol Blosser countered by launching a court challenge under the state’s election laws, but the incident nevertheless underscores the strong feelings the issue elicits in the Northwest and across the nation. While the federal government continues to grapple with an acceptable immigration plan, the wine industry and other agricultural businesses maintain a vested interest in providing humane living conditions for their workers, no matter where they come  from.

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