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New Dawn For Worker Housing

For these California farm laborers, Nuevo Amanecer represents a new and better way of life for themselves and their families.

January 01, 2008 |

Nuevo Amanecer, designed by KTGY Architects, provides affordable housing for 55 farm worker families in Pajaro, Calif. Segue Construction was the GC. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER MAYER PHOTOGRAPHY, CHRISMAYERPHOTO.COM

I f you've ever enjoyed succulent strawberries with your morning cereal, or crisp lettuce in your salad, or artichoke hearts dipped in melted butter, there's a good chance those agricultural products were grown and picked by farm workers somewhere in California—maybe in Pajaro, a rural community along the Pajaro River in unincorporated Monterey County.

It was in this Central Coast community, in 2000, that a group of farm workers, led by organizers from the Center for Community Activism in Salinas, conducted a rent strike against the owners of the Salinas Road Apartments. For years, the farm workers' families lived in squalid, overcrowded conditions. The 77 single-story units were subject to frequent flooding, and with it came mold, rot, rats, and cockroaches. Lead-based paint and asbestos contaminated the living spaces. The only play area for the children was an unsafe makeshift parking lot.

“The owners were running the property into the ground, and the tenants were paying market rate for overcrowded, infested apartments,” says Matt Huerta, senior project manager for South County Housing Corp., based in Gilroy.

The strike went on for six months, until early 2001, when the owners relented and sold the apartment complex to Monterey County and South County Housing. The nonprofit housing agency made emergency repairs to the property, relocated some families to better housing, brought in social services, and lowered the tenants' rents, all on a shoestring budget.

Conditions improved somewhat, but South County Housing officials eventually came to the conclusion that a Band-Aid approach was not going to work. The agency sought professional help from Irvine-based KTGY Group. Principal and lead residential designer David Senden recently recalled his first visit to the site. “It was a shantytown,” he said. “I thought that if you pulled out one wall, the whole thing would fall down.”

The designers and South County Housing staff held extensive bilingual meetings with the families to determine their needs. “They were very committed,” says Senden. “We started with a blank slate, but their wishes turned out to be very conventional. They wanted a coin laundry to wash their clothes, a place where they could sit out at night and be safe, basic things like that.”

By mid-2005, the housing corporation had pieced together $23 million from a dozen entities, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Monterey County, a state farm worker housing program, and public-interest groups. The remaining 55 families were moved to temporary housing, the buildings were demolished, and the entire 2.5-acre site was filled with two and a half feet of dirt to lift it out of the Pajaro River floodplain.

The first phase of the project—a 1,573-sf community center and 26 housing units—had to be ready for occupancy by June 1, 2006, or the agency would get stuck with an extra $1 million in relocation costs. The general contractor, Segue Construction, Point Richmond, “came to the rescue,” according to Huerta, and finished phase one with two days to spare. Another 37 apartments were ready four months later. The tenants named the new project Nuevo Amanecer, to signify a “new dawn” in their lives.

Of the 55 relocated families, 35 were able to move back; of the remainder, some families actually were able to buy homes and others had found apartments elsewhere. By January 2006, the project was completely rented. Tenants pay $492 to $945 a month for an apartment or townhouse—40-60% below market rate, depending on family income. South County Housing must reserve 26 units for certified farm workers and their families, although virtually every apartment has at least one farm worker in residence.

The 63 units are 14 fewer than in the razed complex, yet the KTGY designers were able to provide 153 total bedrooms in Nuevo Amanecer versus 99 before, thus fulfilling a tenant request for greater privacy. Each flat or townhome is stacked on top of a two-car garage and storage space, yet another precaution against flooding.

The focal point is the community center, with its large multipurpose room, computer lab, kitchen, and offices for an onsite property manager from South County Housing and a resident service coordinator. The new tot lot can be seen from the laundry room in the center, one of two coin-operated laundries in the new complex. A paseo that runs through the center of the complex provides a safe setting for residents to have barbecues and other outdoor activities under their covered patios.

The design team specified a number of green features: low-e window glass, recycled-content building products, low-VOC paints, a drainage system with bioswales and a vortex filtration system, and active solar panels (funded in part by Global Green USA) that offset $15,000 a year in electricity costs and provide emergency backup for lighting common areas. Energy savings exceed Title 24 by 20%, according to SCH's Huerta.

In addition to removing the asbestos and lead-based paint, the Building Team also had to remediate 300 tons of soil contaminated by diesel fuel from a leaking underground vault. Total cleanup costs: $400,000. In addition, an ADA-compliant elevator was installed to provide access to upper floors for elderly family members. “It wasn't required, but it was the right thing to do,” says Senden.

The tenants chose vibrant colors—lime green and salmon—for the exteriors and steered the designers away from an agrarian design vernacular. Sender says they told him, “We work in barns all day. We don't want to live in one.”

Nuevo Amanecer has been named a finalist in the Best in American Living Awards by our sister publication Professional Builder and the National Association of Home Builders. The winners will be announced next month.

Robert Cassidy, Editor-in-Chief

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