The Silent (And Invisible) Farmworker Housing Crisis

Farmworker Justice Welcomes Guest Bloggers from the  Housing Assistance Council : Lance George, Research Director, and Leslie Strauss, Senior Policy Analyst

“Rural America’s Silent Housing Crisis,” an article in The Atlantic magazine’s February edition, describes the overlooked plight of rural families who struggle to obtain quality housing they can afford. The article does not look specifically at the housing problems of farmworkers – a crisis that deserves attention because it is not only silent, but often invisible.

Because of the nature of their employment and working conditions, farmworkers’ housing options are often substantially different from the overall market in terms of cost and quality. Most farmworkers find housing through the private market. But rental housing is not as plentiful in rural places as it is in most cities. Additionally, landlords typically ask for a security deposit, a credit check, and a long-term commitment, requirements that often conflict with the unique conditions of the farm labor industry. Furthermore, especially in remote rural areas that are typically not subject to standards or regulations, available rentals may be substandard and expensive relative to farmworkers’ incomes. 

A smaller, yet still substantial number of farmworkers live in housing provided by employers. The prevalence of employer-owned housing has declined markedly over the past few decades, and it is estimated that now between 10 and 15 percent of farmworker housing units nationally are made available by employers. In many states, employer-provided housing is regulated to some degree for health and safety reasons, thus benefiting workers whose other housing options are not subjected to scrutiny. But employer-owned housing is not problem-free either. A situation where an employer also serves as a landlord may compound an already asymmetric relationship. Some farmworkers may find it uncomfortable to complain about poor housing conditions to their employer.

Regardless of how they obtain housing, farmworkers cope with a range of problems including costs that typically do not fit their incomes, substandard quality, and the need for short-term housing during temporary work. Farmworkers disproportionally live in crowded housing conditions. The Housing Assistance Council estimates that at least one-third of farmworkers live in crowded conditions -- more than six times the rate of crowded homes nationally. 

Very few farmworkers receive any form of housing assistance from a state, local, or federal government entity. The federal government has been working to combat farmworker housing problems for more than 40 years through grant and loan programs administered through various federal departments and initiatives. One important farmworker housing resource is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Section 514/516 Farm Labor Housing program, which provides funding to buy, build, improve, or repair housing for farm laborers. Despite moderate increases in overall funding, however, the development of new federally funded farm labor housing has been steadily dropping over the past 25 years. 

Rural nonprofit organizations have proved that developing decent, affordable housing for farmworkers is possible. Examples can be seen online at, for example, Yakima Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing and CASA of Oregon.  With the prevalence of crowded, substandard, and unaffordable housing conditions, an increased investment in housing for farmworkers is critical. This investment should be multifaceted and come from private as well as public sources. We have a responsibility to ensure that the people who are integral elements of our nation’s food supply are appropriately compensated, housed, and protected.