People moving to Santa Barbara County from somewhere back East or down South in the late 1980s were shocked senseless by the cost of renting a home or apartment.

The shock turned to awe when they read the local classified sections of that time to see that what were essentially glorified tool sheds were being rented out to migrant workers for more than $1,500 a month.

Time and technology haven’t changed that situation very much. In fact, it could be argued that this region’s single most vexing and unsolvable problem is the severe shortage of so-called affordable housing.

That problem is compounded for local business owners seeking low-wage workers, and problem that segues to acute status for local growers who need a full complement of experienced hands to tend and collect field crops.

The overall situation was certainly not improved by the federal government’s start of the H-2A visa program for “guest workers,” the foreign labor pool needed to fill seasonal jobs in this country.

And when it comes to the requirement for seasonal labor, Santa Barbara County — and particularly North County — has an abundance of need.

But the H-2A program brought with it some unintended consequences in North County communities, mainly those heavily dependent on field workers — how to house those temporary workers.

This is an issue that grew to such an extent that the Santa Maria City Council last week placed a temporary hold on property owners being able to cram their dwellings with H-2A workers.

The new rule stipulates no more than six H-2A workers can rent in a residential dwelling. The rule will last 45 days, giving city staff time to research the issue, and come back to the City Council with a more permanent solution.

Council members were unanimous in their decision on the moratorium, perhaps bowing to pressure brought by Santa Maria residents worried about the future of their neighborhoods.

The meeting was packed with citizens, most of whom complained about homes in their neighborhoods bulging with workers. In one case, a homeowner had allowed 16 workers into a relatively small single-family home, charging $500 per month per person.

That kind of profit potential is what worries citizens and elected officials. Council members also heard stories of tenants being evicted from single-family homes so H-2A workers could fill all the rooms.

The profit potential is real. Census Bureau data indicates that about half of the dwellings within city limits contain renting tenants, with an average monthly rent of $1,200. Charging $500 a head for a dozen or more definitely jacks up the bottom line.

There are, of course, reasons beyond profit for the City Council starting this regulatory ball rolling. For one thing, the city’s quality of life needs to be protected.

But the council also heard an earful about how clamping down on available housing for H-2A workers could pose a serious threat to local agriculture, which incidentally is the county’s leading industry, both in direct revenue benefits and through the ripple effect.

Housing affordability is a puzzle elected officials have been working on for decades, and have yet to come up with a viable solution. Nearly every proposal for affordable housing development runs into a solid NIMBY wall, which is to be expected, with stratospheric home values being what they are.

We’ve thought about the affordable-housing dilemma for years, without much success. And in that regard, we wish the decision-makers in Santa Maria much luck. Finding answers that work for everyone certainly will not be easy.


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