Housing Is a Right. During a Pandemic, It’s Also a Fight.
In the Covid era, poverty in California’s rural agricultural counties has become deadly. California now has over 2.7 million coronavirus cases. While Los Angeles, with its huge population, has the largest number of cases with over 920,000, the highest infection rates actually are to be found in less-populous counties with large farmworker populations. Imperial County, right across the border from Mexicali, Mexico, and Kings County, just south of Fresno, both have well over 10,000 cases per every 100,000 residents. California is the richest state in the United States, so it’s easy to forget that its rural poverty and substandard farmworker housing have contributed to the surge in Covid-19 cases here.
Tulare County, a large county in California’s southern San Joaquin Valley, was a tourist destination in better times—it’s home to the towering forests of the Sequoia National Park. But Tulare is also a working county—it was here that the United Farm Workers was born out of the 1965 grape strike, and it remains one of the most important agricultural regions in the state and the country. Tulare, with a population of about 466,000, has 34,479 Covid-19 cases, and 406 people have died. That gives it infection and death rates more than twice those of urban San Francisco or Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara County.
Covid rates follow income. Family annual income in San Francisco and Santa Clara is more than twice that of Tulare. Over 32,000 the county’s residents are farmworkers, and farmworker families survive on less than half of what most US families earn.
In Tulare, poverty forces people to live closer together to share rent and living costs, making social distancing difficult. People here go to work because they have no cushion of savings—a day without pay can be difficult; a week could be ruinous. Traveling to and from the fields in crowded cars or buses also places workers in close proximity. “Getting better housing has become a survival need at a time when existing conditions make the threat of the virus much much worse,” Mari Perez, an organizer with the Larry Itliong Resource Center in Poplar, a farmworker community in Tulare County, told me.
But the fight to improve housing conditions didn’t begin with the pandemic—in fact, better living conditions has been at the center of the struggle for rural emancipation here since the days of the grape strike. One of the most important tools for getting better housing, born in the civil rights upsurge among the valley’s farmworkers, was a concept called Self-Help Housing. It started with the idea that even people with low income could build and own homes. If farmworkers contributed their labor and got help with building materials and loans for land, they could free themselves from paying high rents. In activist Richard Unwin’s history of Self-Help Housing’s first idealistic decade, he called it “a story of a singular effort, a sustained commitment, to develop imaginative, efficient and humane methods of assisting families to move up from poverty by moving out of riverbank shanties and roadside shacks into decent houses…of determination to make substance of dreams.”
Mario Robles, now 21 years old, was born the year his parents moved into a house on Sierra Avenue in Earlimart, a small farmworker town in Tulare County. It was already an old house, one of the first built by Self-Help Housing in 1965, 35 years earlier.
“No one in my family knows who built it,” Robles says. “But when we moved in the house was falling apart. We put a lot of work into it, and now we’re really proud of it.” A string of houses like the Robles’s lines the south side of Sierra Avenue, all built in the same year. A few show their age, but most look like their owners have taken very good care of them, or even rebuilt them after they’d deteriorated.
These homes were the answer community activists had to the chronic crisis afflicting farmworker families—terrible housing, or even no housing at all. Today, it’s still not unusual to see people living in cars when the grape harvest begins in Tulare County and migrants arrive for the picking.
Even families that live in the county year-round have to put up with homes in bad condition, paying a large part of their low farmworker wages to live in them. According to the Census, half the workers in the county earn less than $24,000 a year. Nearly a quarter of the families in Tulare get food stamps and live below the poverty line—more than a third of families headed by single women. For half of Tulare’s 56,000 renters—farmworkers and other low-wage laborers—a third of family income goes for rent.
Since the beginning, Self-Help Housing was about more than just affordable housing. At the end of the 1950s, Larry Itliong, for whom the Resource Center in Poplar center is named, had been organizing strikes of Filipino farmworkers for a decade, with the Filipino Farm Labor Union and later the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Cesar Chavez was getting ready to leave the Community Service Organization to found the National Farm Worker Association.
In 1958, in Tulare County, Brad McAlister, a staff member of the Farm Labor Committee of the American Friends Service Committee, brought together the first group of farmworkers to talk about a self-help model for building homes. Two years later, he went to Congress and began writing what became the Housing Act of 1961, which produced the first federal home loans for low-income rural people. By 1963, the first 12 families had begun construction in Goshen, a tiny Tulare County community on Highway 99. From the start, both Self-Help and the UFW were part of the same rebellious movement for change among rural families. Supportive activists like Clyde Golden and George Salinas worked as carpenters on Self-Help homes in some years, and in others built the union’s retirement home for Filipino strikers, Agbayani Village.
In Poplar, 20 miles north, Self-Help began pulling together Filipino and Mexican immigrant families two decades ago, and helped them begin building homes on Walker Street. “We moved into our house in 2004,” remembers Gina Lacambacal. “Self-Help provided the materials and it was up to us to put it up. Sometimes if we couldn’t work on our own house people would come and help. All the houses in this neighborhood were built with Self-Help.”
When she was growing up, she recalls, people in Poplar rented homes from the local pawnshop owner. “Our house wasn’t very well built. It was ancient, but you had a roof over your head. That’s all that mattered.”
The Sobrepena family built their home in 1996, just a few doors away. Both the Lacambacals and Sobrepenas come from the Philippines. Family migration wasn’t easy for them: It took Gina’s older brothers more than 20 years to get their visas because of the system’s long backlogs. Another brother had to stay unmarried for years in the Philippines, since married children lose their visa preference. He could only marry his wife once he arrived in the United States.
Nevertheless, having a stable home gave the families a base from which other members were able to come. Valentine and Christine Sobrepena and Reginaldo and Gloria Lacambacal were brought to the country by family members who were already citizens and legal residents. The couples worked the rest of their lives as farmworkers picking grapes and other fruit. They’re now in their 80s, too old to work, but they have a home with four generations of family looking out for them.
Most families in Poplar, however, are still renting. It is a tiny, unincorporated “Census-designated place,” but growing. In 2000 it had 1,500 residents, and 10 years later 2,500. “We haven’t seen this year’s numbers yet,” says Mari Perez, “but we’re sure they’ll be a lot higher. So we need housing more than ever.”
Despite some rural housing construction, half the housing in Tulare County was built before 1970, and only 4 percent in the last decade. Like many Poplar residents, Rachel Alcantar lives in a trailer, paying $500 a month in rent, with her husband, Jose Serna; her son, Victor Alcantar; and her baby, Ezekiel Serna. She was just elected to Poplar’s school board, and she and her husband are both immigrant rights activists with the local chapter of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “We all hoped that Self-Help would continue bringing in more families, but they stopped after the houses were built on Walker Street,” Alcantar says.
A few blocks away, Lupe Aldaco moved into a house that was falling apart five years ago, and fixed it up. Then she added a tiny trailer in the backyard for her son and a friend to live in. Arturo Rodriguez, the other organizer at the Larry Itliong Resource Center, grew up in that house and remembers the condition it was in. “I just thought it was normal, the way people lived,” he says. So when the center was organized, he began a campaign to take control of the local development board.
“It was run by the old guard,” he says, “who stopped any new housing because more people meant a threat to their control.” Poplar is in the district of Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the US House of Representatives. The center finally found several acres of land for housing, but it’s still fighting to get rid of restrictions the old guard put in place.
“Housing is a right,” Perez laughs. “But it’s also a fight. If we don’t organize, we’ll never get it.”
David Bacon is the author of Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), and The Right to Stay Home (2013), both from Beacon Press. His latest book is In the Fields of the North / En los campos del norte, University of California Press, Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2017. David Bacon’s photography archive is now in the Special Collections of the Green Library at Stanford University.
Co-published with The Nation.