published: Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Avon Park to research farm worker housing grant
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
AVON PARK -- Maria Sutherland, director of administrative services, and City Manager Julian Deleon asked the city council Monday for permission to explore the opportunity for a $400,000 USDA/HUD grant, which has a 10 percent matching fund component.
The money would be used to build or refurbish housing exclusively for farm workers.
Part of the need is because single family homes do not convert well to group living. Multiple complaints about overcrowding led to planning and zoning changes to restrict their use.
"What is at hand here," Sutherland said, "is actual ranchers and growers have called concerned about insufficient housing for workers here." This is not Avon Park's problem alone, nor that of Highlands County, she added. "It's a regional concern. Lake Placid has a big need for this, too."
Deleon told council the Housing Authority would manage the housing complex on a day-to-day basis, for a portion of the proceeds. The complex would be part of the federal government's H2A program where farm workers arrive with a special field work visa that guarantees safe and clean housing. Landlords must follow strict rules. The apartments/rooms are inspected on a regular basis.
"The county approves the housing without looking at the buildings," Sutherland said. As a result many current facilities for farm workers are in bad repair, unsanitary, or stuck in the middle of nowhere.
The proposed complex will be inside city limits with aggregate living -- that means single individuals share common space, like a kitchen.
The proposal would be an alternative choice, an addition to the housing pool, not a replacement.
"This is not about relocating families," Sutherland said.
Reaction was swift and unfavorable.
Representatives from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) were skeptical of the city's motives. Some feared segregation and the creation of a ghetto.
"Why is there this sudden willingness (to create farm worker housing) when it (willingness) hasn't been there in the past?" asked Larry Aguelar, LULAC's commissioner of education.
"Government doesn't need to be in the housing business," former city councilman George Hall said, I encourage you to run as fast as you can away from anything having to do with housing."
Deputy Mayor Brenda Gray agreed. "We're not good landlords," she said. "We've already proven that."
"We aren't good landlords," Mayor Sharon Schuler agreed. "And I would not be in favor of the Housing Authority managing the property; they have enough on their plate."
Deleon said any private management company would do.
Reluctantly, the council did give staff permission to do more research on the grant and H2A housing. At the same time, it made clear that approval would take considerable persuasion.
"We don't need no more headaches to take care of," said Paul Miller, attending his last meeting as a council member.
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