Migrant housing opens soon in rural Franklin Co.

BASIN CITY -- The first publicly funded migrant farmworker housing project in rural Franklin County should be open in time for this year's asparagus harvest.

Officials hope to welcome workers to the "bunkhouse"-style project at Road 170 and Ringold Road on March 1. It was started several years ago to address issues related to farmworkers camping on state land at Ringold.

The 96-bed duplex-style development was opposed by some area landowners, who expressed concerns with the $3.25 million price tag and the possibility of increased crime in the area.

But the complex, which is meant for single workers, will help farmers provide for the influx of migrant workers during the harvest season, said David Manterola, a Washington Farm Labor Association member.

For example, during cherry harvest, a large number of workers are needed, but only for about a month.

The nonprofit WFLA owns the buildings and will manage the housing. The Franklin County Farm Bureau owns the land and has leased it to the nonprofit.

The project was paid for by a state Department of Commerce grant and some private money.

Franklin County has orchards, asparagus, seed crops and other labor-intensive crops that need a large number of workers at various times, said Manterola, who also is a Franklin County Farm Bureau board member.

An estimated 5,000 migrant workers are in the Mid-Columbia area during harvest season, he said.

The complex will be closed during the off-season, likely between mid-December and the first of February, Manterola said.

The Ringold housing includes seven buildings. One building has the on-site manager's residence and the complex office, and the other six are duplexes.

Each of the 12 units has two bedrooms, with two bunkbeds in each room and a locker for each person. Interior walls are painted a warm yellow and the floors are concrete. Each unit is 1,296 square feet.

"These things are built for durability, ease of maintenance and comfort," Manterola said.

Ben Casper of Basin City, a project critic who owns land nearby, said it's a nice facility that many would give up an arm to live in, but he thinks it will be worn down before long.

Casper said he's concerned about the cost of the project, especially with the state's budget crunch. It's an expensive solution for a problem that occurs only a couple of weeks a year during cherry harvest, he said. The cost is about $35,000 per bed.

Manterola agrees that the cost for the project is high, but he said that's part of the reason it's needed. Farmers can't afford to meet the building standards and requirements that Ringold has, he said.

Ringold meets housing standards required for the U.S. Department of Labor's guest worker program, Manterola said. That means growers who use the program can house their employees at the complex.

Casper said housing is something growers, not the state, should provide. Some growers have built temporary worker housing on their properties for the harvest.

Ringold will provide housing for farmers who can't afford to build worker housing to the required standards, or who don't need it for a long enough period to justify the cost, Manterola said.

And it will provide overflow housing for growers who provide housing but not enough for their peak times, he said.

The 96 beds won't supply all the farmworker housing needed in the area, said Lorraine Stephens, Washington Farm Labor Association general manager, but it will help.

"This just scratches the surface of the needs," she said.

Farmers will rent beds for their seasonal workers, Manterola said. And 10 percent of the beds will be open for individual workers to come as drop-ins and rent a bed for a night, Stephens said. That was a requirement from the Department of Commerce.

A manager will live on the property year-round to help address neighbors' concerns about increased crime, Stephens said. The complex also has a security system, she said.

"Those concerns aren't going to go away until the project proves itself," Manterola said.

Ringold is the third farmworker housing complex to open in the Mid-Columbia in the past year.