In one year, a farm worker who harvests and packs produce makes less than $10,000, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey by the United States Department of Labor. That’s not enough money to rent an apartment in this county. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, “A renter household needs an annual income of $37,960 in order for a two-bedroom rental unit … to be affordable.”
That equation just doesn’t work. It didn’t work for 21-year-old Mayra Amezcua, who lived in one room with her parents, two sisters and one brother in an apartment in Fillmore. They shared the apartment with two other families.
Mayra’s father picks lemons and oranges for various ranches. Her mother is a crossing guard who also does ironing and cleans houses. Mayra and her siblings had trouble doing their schoolwork in the crowded Fillmore apartment. Sometimes one family member would want to sleep, and the others would have to go outside to find light to study by.
“It was very chaotic and stressful,” she said. Her parents tried to move the family to a bigger place.
“We were one of the families in line waiting. It took about seven years of attending meetings and asking, practically begging for low-income housing,” she said.
In 2009, Mayra’s family moved into the Central Station Farmworker Family Apartments on Main Street in Fillmore. Central Station is a community of 21 rental homes provided by the Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation (CEDC), which builds affordable housing for low-income families.
“I felt like I was in a dream and I was scared of waking up one day and being back in that one room,” said Susie Amezcua, Mayra’s 19-year-old sister. The family’s new apartment had a living room and a kitchen.
Both sisters currently attend Calfornia State University, Northridge. Mayra is a liberal studies major and Susie is double majoring in Chicano studies and sociology.
Her parents have inspired Susie to continue with her schooling. They taught her that if she has an education, she will be treated better in life.
“Ideally I want to be one of those people who kept pushing for those [housing] projects to be approved,” said Susie.
House Farm Workers! is an advocacy group in California working to rid people of the mentality that having low-income housing in your community devalues your home.
“Which is totally false,” said Gail Weller Brown, committee chair person for House Farm Workers! “These people are screened. They have to document that they are farm workers, that they meet the minimum salary requirements. It’s quite extensive; they have a lot of work to do to prove that they are worthy of being in those homes.”
Brown said the area around the Meta Street Farm Worker Family Apartments, another CEDC project, this one in Oxnard actually became safer, cleaner and better-lit as a result of the low-income housing there.
“They’re wonderful people who work very hard, and all they want is to have some privacy for their children to study and a safe place for them to grow up,” she said.
On July 19, the Ag Futures Alliance Farm Worker Housing Task Force will host a benefit dinner called Field to Fork at the Walnut Grove on Tierra Rejada Ranch in Moorpark.
Six featured chefs, including Ventura resident Adrien Nieto, MasterChef finalist from season two of the TV series, will partner with local farmers, including Craig Underwood of Underwood Family Farms, to cook a three-course gourmet meal for about 200 guests.
“It’s a chance to tell our story and for people to understand why it’s important that we treat our farm workers with respect and appreciation for what they do,” said Brown.
The event, which raised $19,000 last year, is expected to bring in $30,000. That money will go toward promoting better housing for farm workers.
Tim Kilcoyne, owner and executive chef of the Sidecar Restaurant in Ventura is coordinating the meal that will be prepared using fresh produce grown in Ventura County.
“It’s not just about the farmers, it’s about all their workers who bring the food to our kitchen so that we can bring it to the tables and to our customers,” Kilcoyne said.
The farm workers and their families will be honored guests at Field to Fork.
Mayra Amezcua attended last year and is planning to go again this year.
“It’s inspiring to see that people care about farm workers in low-income houses,” she said.
Tickets to the event are $150 and can be purchased online at tinyurl.com/fieldtofork.