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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Farm Workers Find Comforts Of Home In West Delray Complex
By Tal Abbady
September 15, 2003
West Delray · For decades, they lived in one-room sheds with no air conditioning and gang bathrooms -- a bleak sanctuary for men who spent 10 hours a day cutting sugar cane and picking tomatoes.
When they couldn't find even substandard housing, immigrant farm workers made do with trailers or stable-groom quarters big enough for one but often cramped with a family of six.
But this month, a handful of Palm Beach County's lowest-paid workers -- those whose dawn-to-dusk crop-picking helps propel the state's multibillion-dollar agricultural industry -- will know the comforts of a home fit to live in.
In the Pines, once a federally owned development of single dwellings crowded with migrant workers, is now a complex of new pastel-colored town houses and single-family homes with up to three bedrooms, carpeting, full kitchens, bathrooms and air conditioning. Construction of the $3 million project, a collaboration of the Junior League, In the Pines Inc. and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, began a year ago, and it will soon house 40 families. All of the residents are low-income, and most are farm workers.
`It's a blessing'
The residents will be permanent dwellers, not the migrant crop pickers who come to Florida for the seasonal harvests and then journey north to the Carolinas and beyond where other picking seasons beckon with jobs.
"To be in a real home, it's something fundamental. ... This has opened doors for us," said Benigno Rivera, 29, who drives a tractor for Dubois Farms and lives with his wife, three children, a brother and a cousin in a small trailer tucked behind a green pepper field west of Boynton Beach.
Rivera and his wife, Jezabel Maisonet Perez Rivera, 31, moved to the trailer from their middle-class home in Lares, Puerto Rico, where they worked as nurses.
"For the price we'll be paying, it's a blessing," said Jezabel Perez Rivera, who spends her days studying English and taking care of her three small daughters. The family earns about $16,000 a year and will be paying about $325 a month for a three-bedroom home.
Problems with the development's water connection have delayed its opening until later this month, but Rivera already knows which unit will be hers.
"C-16," she says in a prayer-like whisper. "I go see it every week."
In the Pines will open its refurbished doors at a critical time in the history of low-income housing for farm workers. With developers encroaching upon more and more farmland in the county and fewer farmers able to afford to house their employees, farm workers -- many of them undocumented and with no English skills -- scramble every year to have a roof over their heads.
And while other counties have devoted money to adequate housing for these laborers -- most notably the 300-unit Farm Worker Village in Immokalee in Collier County -- there are few efforts in Palm Beach County to do the same.
The Riveras are among almost 150 families who applied for one of the 40 new units at In the Pines, which lies at the end of Half Mile Road past a stretch of nurseries and a couple of upscale developments.
About eight families lived huddled in the squalid buildings, and the agencies spent part of their funding to find temporary housing. The reasoning behind the project, which includes a thriving day-care center that has served families for more than a decade, holds that families cannot assimilate and claim a stake in their community when they live in such jam-packed conditions.
"Cramped housing leaves kids no place to do homework. There's little money to pay light bills or patch up leaks in the roof. But in a home that's established and affordable, families can grow in many areas," said Sandy McGuinn of In the Pines. McGuinn, a former Boca Housing Authority executive, said the project came together with the complex layering of public and private grants. Fund raising for the new development began in 1998.
Rent will be determined on a scale based on income, and some will pay as low as $185 or as high as $670 monthly, regardless of the size of the home they will occupy.
"Some of these people never dreamed they'd live in a real home," said Judy Burleson, president of In the Pines. "But we've worked at establishing a sense of community for them here, and they've come to feel it's a safe haven."
Praise and criticism
Families already residing at In the Pines were guaranteed a place at the new development, while those applying from the outside were considered based on their economic and family needs. State and federal grants for the project required that at least 80 percent of the community's residents be farm workers, a term that includes those who drive tractors or work in feed companies or nurseries.
According to the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, an advocacy group, there are about 300,000 farm workers in Florida. Of those, about 100,000 are migrant. Decades ago, they were mostly field workers from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, but more recently, they include Mexicans, Guatemalans and Haitians.
Greg Schell of the Justice Project said housing for migrant workers is difficult to subsidize because the occupants would pay rent for only part of the year. While Schell praised In the Pines for providing affordable housing in a county stripped of it, he said the project doesn't address the housing crisis of seasonal farm workers.
"People who are not here year-round are desperate for a place to stay, ... but it's a challenge to run a project that's really for true migrants because no agency is going to be able to make mortgage payments on units that sit vacant for large parts of the year," Schell said.
Schell criticized In the Pines for stretching its definition of farm work to include nursery workers, who are employed year-round, and landscapers -- an industry that has increasingly culled its workforce from the farming sector.
But In the Pines advocates say that over the years in eastern Palm Beach County, immigrant farm workers have grown more rooted than those in other parts of the state. They've joined church communities, have children in school, and have sought work in nurseries or construction companies in the face of layoffs in area farms. The Junior League campaigned for the new housing as a family-oriented project that would better the lives of workers' children, its leaders said.
Out of the stable
"F32" is the designation of Gabriela Morones Villega's new life -- a leap from the room she and her family used to call home in a stable where her husband mucked stalls. They have two children.
Villegas, 26 and from Guanajuato, Mexico, said her family was able to move into an apartment a year ago when her husband found work as a driver for a feed company in Boynton Beach. But they barely can afford the rent, and she often must carry their daughter, 5, who is ill with a rare disease called tuberous sclerosis, down three flights of stairs. She is anxious to move into her new ground-floor home, where the rent will be $450 monthly.
"I'll be able to put my son in the day-care center. The house is new and pretty," Villegas said. "It's got three rooms and air conditioning. For me, that's luxury."