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Undocumented immigration & affordable housing shortage creates costly mix for state
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

California, based on research by the state’s Housing and Community Department, needs to build 70,000 more housing units a year than are currently being built meet housing needs.

Homeland Security in May alone reported apprehending 132,887 people who entered the country illegally along the California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona borders.

The largest chunk of immigrants, legal and otherwise, ends up in California.

It stands to reason there is a correlation to a degree in California between rising housing prices, a surge in homeless numbers, and an even bigger surge in illegal immigration.

If you doubt that talk to some folks in Santa Maria.

It is a city of 108,000 in Santa Barbara County on California’s Central Coast.

There are crops in the fields to pick year-round — strawberries cauliflower, various lettuce, celery and broccoli to name a few.

Agriculture generates almost 71,000 jobs in the greater Santa Maria area with the bulk of them revolving around labor intensive hand harvesting.

Santa Maria also happens to have a housing crisis that makes most Central Valley towns’ affordable housing concerns seem trivial.

Growers around Santa Maria make heavy use of the H-2A visa program to secure farmworkers legally from other countries — primarily Mexico — given tightened border security has drastically reduced the flow of illegal immigrant workers.

The use of H-2A workers has created an acute housing shortage in Santa Maria and nearby communities. That’s because the H-2A visa program requires farmers to provide housing for farm laborers. Farmers are paying top dollar for rentals. To tap into the lucrative market, property owners have been converting budget motels and single family homes into dorm style housing for H-2A workers.

That, in turn, has spiked rent and has forced a growing number of people in low income brackets — including illegal immigrants working the fields or in other endeavors — into the streets.

The H-2A worker visa is a legal immigration program. But it serves as a precautionary tale of where we are headed given the litigious nature of those now streaming illegally over the border — primarily from Central and South America — and the activists that support such lawsuits.

How can California afford to absorb 250,000 more people a year coming on top of the current housing crisis assuming 20 percent of the annual infiltration of our porous borders ends up in the Golden State that arguably strives to give undocumented immigrants the largest amount of entitlements?

Even if every able-bodied undocumented immigrant got jobs, where will they live?

The answer is most won’t be on the street or even government subsidized housing.

Santa Maria isn’t the only area where traditional single daily homes are being turned into virtual dormitories. It is one of the few places though where there is a clear picture of what happens to local housing markets when they are flooded with low-skilled and low paid workers thanks to the H-2A program with its mandatory housing requirement.

The Wall Street Journal reporting on Santa Maria’s trials and tribulations when it comes to housing showcased former field worker Felipe Mendoza who went on to become a successful construction contract and has since retired.

Next door to his home that has a well-manicured lawn is a house that had been modified to accommodate 10 farmworkers. Mendoza worries about his property value plummeting and the wisdom of plopping a houseful of adults in a family neighborhood to the point he is now uncomfortable when his granddaughter visits him.

The private sector version of the H-2A housing program is immigrants pooling their resources to rent homes. It is already happening in some places. Besides perhaps altering the character of neighborhoods by turning homes into virtual dormitories, it does help to drive rent prices up.

There is little doubt this is also happening when it comes to citizens and existing residents. 

The real problem are those pushing for essentially an open door policy for all immigrants besides those allowed in legally under annual quotas are helping make the state’s affordable housing crisis even worse.

The more people and dollars you have chasing a limited commodity the more valuable and expensive it becomes.

While there’s nothing illegal about 10 adults living in a so-called “single family home” unless of course the government is the landlord, it most certainly impacts market dynamics. Individually those 10 may be able to afford only $300 a piece in monthly rent but collectively that is $3,000. If a home typically rents for $2,000 a month to either what is described nowadays as a nuclear family or even what American society views as non-traditional families, a limited commodity such as living space tends to be commandeered by those that can pay the most. In this case that would most likely be 10 adults that can pool $3,000 together.

Non-related individuals and those not in a relationship living under the same roof has been a low-key trend for years. This is beyond buddies getting together to rent a place. Experts like to say it’s mostly adult children living at home well past traditional college age or elderly parents moving in.

Take a good hard look of what is around you. We are quietly but slowly moving toward the single-family home as a “dorm” whether it is renting out one or two bedrooms to individuals or a number that is higher than available bedroom space with one person per bedroom.

We are already building 70,000 less housing units per year than we need to take care of those who are citizens or are here legally. Add another 250,000 annually to the mix from non-legal immigration and it will severely exacerbate the state’s housing shortage. Make the housing shortage worse and rents go higher.

So, who are the biggest victims of such a trend? It’s our own poor who find their efforts to secure basic shelter made even more difficult by an influx of undocumented immigrants.

It’s ironic we having a non-stop shouting match over immigration framed partly in humanitarian issues but no one is pointing out that when you raise the tide it lowers it somewhere else.

Those coming to our shores will likely have a better quality of life than what they left behind but it will come at a cost to the poor who are already citizens of this country.

We need immigration but we also need to be able to absorb it. Those seeking “asylum” as undocumented immigrants are virtually 100 percent poor in their country of origin.

While it is admirable to help raise the boats of the downtrodden of the world is it right that it comes at the expense of our own citizens on the bottom of the economic heap that will find they are struggling even more because we fail to control the flow of undocumented immigrants?

Ask those who find themselves in a housing vice in Santa Maria.