What Housing Needs Should I Plan to Address with Farmworker Victims?

Regardless of sexual violence, farmworkers struggle to find affordable, habitable and safe housing. When farmworkers live in employer-controlled housing, federal and state law provides for the minimal requirements that an employer must abide by when providing housing; however, these laws are frequently violated. When housing is not provided by the employer, low wages and temporary work leave farmworkers with limited options. Frequently, what they can afford is in substandard condition such as housing with leaky plumbing, lack of hot water, inoperable power, missing window screens, broken windows, and/or no locks on doors or windows. This is not only potentially unhealthy, but it is also unsafe for victims of sexual violence. As described previously, farmworkers may share living space with many others—some of whom they may not know— to either save money or simply afford housing. High density living situations put a strain on the housing and its condition, for instance, when there are 20 people in three rooms and one bathroom meant for a family of four. These cohabitation situations also increase farmworkers’ vulnerability to sexual violence.

Farmworkers are often faced with unsafe and unhealthy living conditions regardless of whether they seek public, private or employerowned housing. However, if farmworkers live in housing that is owned and controlled by the employer, there is an additional concern that the perpetrator—if a coworker or supervisor—may also have access to victims’ residences. If possible, create a safety plan with farmworker clients that includes support from other co-workers residing at the same location. When working with farmworker victims, ask if they want to remain in their current housing or if new housing needs to be located. Keep in mind that this decision may impact other family members who may also need to be relocated with them, as well as new school enrollment for the children.

Consider the following issues as you think about whether the current housing or another option is safe and appropriate:

  • Does the victim have a copy of the current lease? Is it in a language the victim understands?
  • Is it necessary to provide a copy of the protection order—if one exists—to the landlord in order to seek relief? If so, does the victim have a copy of the protection order?
  • Does the perpetrator also live in the labor camp/housing complex?
  • Does the perpetrator have access to the labor camp or other housing?
  • Is current housing affordable?
  • Is it appropriate for children or a family?
  • Are unrelated men and women living together?
  • Can the housing be temporary, e.g. no oneyear lease requirement?
  • Is there safe transportation available to work and shopping?
  • Are there adequate locks, window bars, motion lighting and other security measures?
  • Is it close to work? Would it better to be farther from work?
  • Is the victim eligible for subsidized housing?

 

In order to assist victims, you may need to review a copy of the current lease—if one exists—or advocate with the landlord. Be aware that victims may not have much information about the lease or know where to obtain that information if housing is shared with many unrelated persons. Additionally, victims may also be reluctant to ask the landlord for help out of a fear of retaliation such as eviction or a report to immigration authorities. As a result, you may want to work with an attorney experienced in housing law who can counsel victims about their rights in response to unlawful retaliation. Because of language and cultural barriers, landlords and tenants may have little communication; landlords may not be willing to assist victims with housing issues. You can play a key advocacy role in these situations.

There may be a number of legal issues that arise related to farmworker victims’ housing. If victims encounter and report to you any of the following incidents, make a referral to an attorney who understands housing law:

  • The perpetrator is the landlord, building manager or owner;
  • The perpetrator is another tenant and the victim can show that landlord knew or should have known about the ongoing harassment/violence and did nothing to prevent it;
  • The landlord is made aware of unsafe conditions in the home (e.g. doors and windows that do not properly lock, building entry system that does not function properly) and the victim is again assaulted;
  • The landlord initiates eviction for criminal activity occurring in the home even though the farmworker was the victim of the criminal activity;
  • The landlord will not accommodate an early termination of the lease; or
  • The lease is not in a language the victim understands.

Exercise

  • What housing resources and referrals do I have in place to assist farmworker victims of sexual violence with housing issues?
  • What trainings are available to my organization regarding public and subsidized housing and what options are available to farmworker victims?
  • Which local attorneys accept referrals if farmworker victims express housing concerns?
  • Which federal and state agencies are responsible for accepting and investigating housing complaints?