Health & Safety, Housing, Litigation

Farm Workers Sue Pescadero Farmer over Unsafe Living Conditions

From MercuryNews.com, Julia Scott, julia.scott@bayareanewsgroup.com, 17 Sept 2011.

San Mateo County officials in May 2010 red-tagged living quarters of at least 28 farm workers and their families, employees at Marchis Central Farm, in Pescadero, after discovering dangerous levels of nitrates in their drinking water. (John Green/San Mateo County TImes)

San Mateo County officials in May 2010 red-tagged living quarters of at least 28 farm workers and their families, employees at Marchis Central Farm, in Pescadero, after discovering dangerous levels of nitrates in their drinking water. (John Green/San Mateo County TImes)

“I was so scared, I wore a mask to protect myself, and I tied my socks with rubber bands at night. — Micaela Rosas, farmworker

PESCADERO, CA — It was bad enough when the leaking roof soaked her clothes and bedspread. But then slugs started coming in through the floor and rooting around on the wet carpet.

That was how Micaela Rosas lived in a dilapidated trailer she rented for eight years from a San Mateo County farmer. Now she’s suing him.

“I was so scared, I wore a mask to protect myself, and I tied my socks with rubber bands at night,” said Rosas, in Spanish, of the mold, slugs, and holes in the bottom of the trailer where field grasses poked in. ” I put tissue in my ears to keep the slugs out.”

Rosas, a 67-year-old flower nursery worker who shared the trailer with a family of five, is lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against Pescadero farm owner Natalino Marchi and Marchi Central Farms, which allegedly subjected farmworker tenants to unsafe and unsanitary housing conditions while overcharging them rent for years.

The suit asks for retroactive rent reimbursement and a court-mandated injunction requiring Marchi to keep his entire tenant housing stock safe and livable from now on.

Other plaintiffs include a single mother named Florencia Vasquez and a couple with three young children. All are current or former tenants of a farm labor housing camp at 901 Bean Hollow Road — a few battered buildings in a dirt lot just south of tiny Pescadero.

The other plaintiffs describe alleged cockroach and rodent infestations, broken windows, water backups and an absence of heating. Parents dressed their children in coats before putting them to bed. The water was undrinkable and gave them rashes. One child scratched himself so badly that he bled.

The suit was filed in late August, and the defendants were served with papers last week.

Marchi Farms made headlines last year when the county red-tagged all of Marchi’s housing units due to nitrate pollution in their drinking water. Marchi was ordered to replace his water system, and the county required him to repair the housing at that time.

But the water problem exposed another kind of crisis: the conditions that farmworkers earning poverty wages will endure because there’s nowhere else for them to live. Despite the contaminated water, most of Marchi’s tenants refused to leave because the county provided no shelter to house them.

“One of the things this case highlights is a much larger issue, which is lack of adequate, safe and healthy housing options in San Mateo County,” said Lisel Holdenried, an attorney representing the plaintiffs who works for California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.

The county, one of California’s wealthiest, doesn’t build enough housing for its poorest residents. Extremely low-income residents — those who can only afford to pay $627 a month — represent the largest housing supply shortfall in the county: 11,500 units, according to a county report from 2006.

More than 19,000 households in the county are living in “seriously overcrowded” conditions, according to the same report.

Statewide, the story is the same. Laws govern what constitutes safe and sanitary housing, but they are rarely enforced, say experts. The California Department of Housing and Community Development, which audits county housing inspections, has seen its budget cut by 29 percent since 2007-2008.

“Some units could not even be called housing units or dwellings; they’re sheds, outbuildings. People live under porches and in structures designed for animals and tools. These are often rented to farmworkers for extraordinary amounts,” said Ilene Jacobs, director of litigation for California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.

Legislation requiring farmers to build their own worker housing would be so politically lethal that it has never been proposed, said Jacobs.

Rosas took pictures of the 4-foot-wide water stain spreading across her bedroom ceiling and the rain buckets on her floor. She complained to Natalino Marchi, who told her to “be calm.”

“I asked every year when I went to pay the rent, and they said, ‘If you want to leave, fine. We have lots of people willing to come here’,” she recalled. Eventually, the problem was fixed.

Merrill Emerick, an attorney for Marchi, would not comment on specific charges.

“We’ll defend these allegations, but we’ll do it through the court,” he said.

The crisis at Marchi Farms could have been prevented had the county enforced its own legal standards.

A San Mateo County Times investigation showed how the county’s Environmental Health Division knew of nitrate problems in Marchi Farms’ drinking water for a decade but never forced the owners to fix the problem.

Likewise, annual housing inspections identified the same chronic and dangerous housing problems each year, many of which appear in the lawsuit. Marchi would promise to fix them, and the county would grant him a housing permit without checking whether it had been done.

Meanwhile, Rosas has found another home. Her old trailer, which rented for $1,100 a month, now rents for $1,300.

Contact Julia Scott at 650-348-4340.

Source: MercuryNews.com, “Farm workers sue Pescadero farmer over unsafe living conditions” by Julia Scott, julia.scott@bayareanewsgroup.com, 17 Sept 2011.

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