Scenic California county marked by land wars

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SALINAS, Calif. -- Monterey county is marked by dramatic craggy cliffs that drop to the Pacific Ocean. Along the coast sit the manicured, affluent enclaves of Carmel, Pebble Beach and Monterey, which attract wealthy homeowners and tourists from around the world.

About 20 miles inland, in the same county, is the fertile valley of Salinas, America's vegetable garden. Some 80 percent of the nation's lettuce and much of its broccoli, cauliflower and spinach grow in Salinas's fog-cooled fields, which produce $3.5 billion worth of crops annually. "We have the climate and soils that make us one of the most bountiful areas in the world," says Bob Roach, the county's assistant agricultural commissioner.

Yet amid this land of plenty, there is squalor. Virtually beside the fields, in the city of Salinas, neighborhoods rival high-rise-jammed cities in population density. Multiple families occupy small houses; others live in converted garages. Gang graffiti mars the facades of apartment complexes. A school's walls are riddled with bullet holes. Fueling Salinas's troubles, many say, is a housing market that offers few affordable dwellings for the thousands of Hispanic immigrants who pick the area's crops.

The five-member family of Gabriela Alvarado, for example, has shared a tiny two-bedroom rented house with two fieldworkers. "It's the only way we can afford to live here," says Mrs. Alvarado, whose husband came to Salinas 18 years ago to work in the lettuce fields. The Alvarados charged two fieldworkers $150 a month each to board with them.

In a study of agriculture workers published in December, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley reported that 39 percent of homes in the Salinas area had more than 1.5 people per room, compared with 0.5 percent of all U.S. homes.

Monterey County is torn by competing priorities. On one side are farmers, developers and immigrant advocates, who want to see more housing built. On the other are environmentalists and residents, including those in the upscale coastal towns, who want to preserve open space and their quality of life. As the two camps fail to reach a middle ground, low-income immigrants have borne most of the fallout: limited housing, with sky-high prices.

The stalemate has helped create housing prices in Salinas, a city of 150,000, that are out of sight, even by California standards. Last year, Salinas was the least-affordable place in the country to live, based on the percentage of median income required to make the mortgage on a median-priced house, according to Moody's Economy.com. The median resale price of a single-family home in Salinas was $620,000 in June 2006, compared with $175,750 the same month in 1996, according to DataQuick Information Systems. City manager Dave Mora says that Salinas's 19 square miles are "99 percent built out."

Monterey County's unusual combination of prime agricultural land and stunning coastal property, of great wealth abutting great poverty, make it an extreme example of how land-use questions can turn political. The clash here provides a glimpse of what may be faced by other areas and industries that increasingly rely on low-wage immigrant laborers, without enough places to house them.

The fight is also emblematic of "slow-growth" movements across the country. From California to Vermont, residents are rebelling against plans they worry will trigger sprawl, rejecting the notion that what's good for the economy is good for them. Many want to maintain the small-town character of their communities, or preserve historic sites or the environment.

Some of the agriculture workers in Monterey are undocumented immigrants, and many move with the harvests, traveling from Arizona to California to the Northwest. But increasingly, there is work year-round in Salinas. Technology has allowed more crop rotations throughout the year, fresh-vegetable processing plants have opened and wineries have sprung up.

John Steinbeck, who grew up in Salinas, rhapsodized about the beauty of the Salinas Valley in his book "East of Eden," published in 1952, describing its "light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness" and streams that "slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River." He wrote about the valley's fertile soil and foothills carpeted with flowers.

In the 1950s and 1960s, farmers brought thousands of Mexican laborers to the U.S. as part of the government's bracero program. Farmers housed the mostly male workforce in dormitories on the edge of their land. By the 1970s, few farm owners offered housing because in most cases, they weren't obligated by law to provide it.

As the agricultural industry in Salinas flourished, the number of immigrants surged. At the same time, the area's beauty was becoming a draw to the wealthy and to tourists. Environmental groups increasingly kept a watchful eye over Monterey's land and its marine life.

The pristine look of the area is key to the county's $1.6 billion tourism industry. In Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Clint Eastwood was once mayor, neon signs, billboards and food stands are banned. A round of golf at the famed Pebble Beach Golf Links is $450 per person.

In the 1980s, more developers started to arrive. Grassroots groups began forming to oppose new housing projects, citing concerns about sprawl, water supplies and road congestion. In the 1990s, the groups began filing lawsuits, which stalled several developments. Still, amid the dot-com boom, Silicon Valley workers began buying homes in the area, even though it meant a long commute. "The mantra of big-money interests is 'we need affordable housing,'"says Jan Mitchell, who formed two groups to fight developers. "But they never provide affordable housing; they will build estates."

By 1998, slow-growth advocates joined forces to form a group called LandWatch Monterey County. The group has been funded by individuals and foundations, including the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. "What we are trying to do is prevent the Salinas Valley from turning into another Los Angeles County or Silicon Valley," says Chris Fitz, executive director of LandWatch.

Janice O'Brien, a LandWatch supporter, lives in a fan-shell-shaped house in Pebble Beach, designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Her solar-powered home sits atop dunes on a well-known scenic route. Mrs. O'Brien moved here in 1973 from southern California, when many people, especially from Los Angeles, began to seek greener, calmer pastures in the Central Coast. She describes herself as a "liberal Democrat and ardent environmentalist."

"Why don't we live within the resources that make the peninsula beautiful?" she says. "That is our battle cry. Stay within the resources."

Mrs. O'Brien says that because of the influx of people working in the tourist trade in her area, traffic "has begun to look like Los Angeles at 5 p.m.," when many workers drive home.

Critics say that slow-growth advocates often live in coastal towns or ranch areas, surrounded by nature and isolated from the problems of overcrowding. "There are people who came here 20 years ago, found Utopia and don't want anything to change," says Jerry Smith, chairman of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and a fourth-generation native of Monterey. "I'm passionate about my ocean sanctuary, rolling hills and farmland, but I really believe we need to build housing."

Other longtime residents, most of whom have seen their property values rise, want to fend off developers who they fear will suburbanize the area. "Nobody wants to give up this way of life," says Carol Harrington, who has lived in the Salinas area since her youth. Wild turkeys, wild pigs and deer roam on her 16 acres. She thinks housing for immigrant workers "should be provided by the farmers."

In 1999, another nonprofit group, called Common Ground, was formed to oppose LandWatch; its supporters included agriculture interests, the tourism industry and immigrant advocates.

Farmers in Salinas say they have been stewards of the land long before environmentalists arrived, and should have the flexibility to develop it as they see fit. "The threat to agriculture is not that we'll sell land," says Rod Braga, whose grandfather started farming here 80 years ago and who employs about 1,200 immigrants during peak season. "It's that our laborers won't be able to afford to live here."

While environmentalists and farmers battled and little new housing was built, immigrants suffered, with more and more workers living in difficult conditions.

For several years, the Alvarados shared a rented two-bedroom apartment with another family. "It is impossible to make ends meet on one salary" in Salinas, says Mrs. Alvarado, who worked at a local preschool part-time. Her husband earned $10.50 an hour. She earned $7.50 an hour. She says she would have preferred to stay at home, to shield her kids from gangs.

Crowded conditions contribute to the proliferation of gangs in Salinas, says Police Chief Dan Ortega. "Migrant kids are lured into gangs for protection," he says. In 2004, the most recent year for which national comparisons are available, the murder rate in Salinas was 11.4 per 100,000 people, compared to 5.5 nationally. Aggravated assaults in Salinas were 453 per 100,000, compared with 291 nationally. Robberies were 302 per 100,000, against 136.7 nationally. The city's homicide rate fell last year, Mr. Ortega says, in part because of the creation of a countywide Gang Task Force.

He notes the contrast for immigrants who serve the tourist trade in the upscale communities. "To make all that tourism work, you need busboys, maids and cooks," says Mr. Ortega. "After work, they come home to Salinas" where living conditions are deplorable, he says.

The housing crush has caused workers to make risky plays for the few ownership opportunities that come up. In March, real-estate agent Frank Bellafiore says he sold a house to a Mexican immigrant field-worker who had been renting a room for his family for seven years in another family's home. The home -- a 1,013-square-foot house built in 1954 -- cost $490,000. The monthly mortgage payment of $3,000 represented about 70 percent of the fieldworker's income.

Despite that, "he was so thrilled that he cried when he signed the loan," recalls Mr. Bellafiore, who declined to give his client's name. He says the new homeowner is considering becoming a landlord himself, by renting out one of his bedrooms to a pair of field-workers.

The housing crunch is even driving higher-income workers away, employers say. Don Nucci, co-chairman of Mann Packing Co., a vegetable packer and shipper, says his company recently lost five supervisors, discouraged by the area's home prices and gang problems. John D'Arrigo, whose grandfather started farming here in 1923, says his agribusiness lost two high-tech experts in three months. "It's happening all over town," he says. "People are leaving this area, from low-skilled workers all the way up to people making $100,000 a year."

If more land is allowed to be developed for housing, the big question is whether that would help the immigrant population. The pro-growth camp says it will, because every new project is required to include a certain number of "workforce" housing units, which are intended for lower- to moderate-income workers.

The slow-growth camp contends most development will be for expensive homes -- and even the units designated for lower-income workers will be out of reach for most immigrant laborers, who earn as little as $14,000 a year.

Construction of 853 houses -- in the only single-family development now going up in Salinas -- was delayed three years by challenges from another slow-growth group called Citizens for Responsible Growth, which raised concerns about the impact on traffic, schools and open space. Most of those houses cost between $500,000 and $800,00. Under current city rules, 12 percent must be set aside for moderate- to low-income families; those houses cost more than $200,000.

"Families will do whatever they can to get into a house," says Mr. Mora, the Salinas city manager. "You need to have two or three families in a house." Some low-income home buyers take out interest-only mortgages, or benefit from special financing from nonprofit or government groups.

The latest battle over competing visions for Monterey County is evident in the struggle to revise a 20-year growth plan. The plan has been a work-in-progress for six years and has already cost taxpayers more than $6 million.

The first draft of the plan satisfied the slow-growth camp, but infuriated farmers, housing advocates and the tourism industry. Development of 75 percent of county land was blocked, either because it was deemed ecologically sensitive or too far from infrastructure. Latino community leaders accused slow-growth groups of being "environmental racists," who wanted to deprive Hispanics of achieving home ownership.

Last October, LandWatch, the slow-growth group, unveiled its own plan. Under that plan, many decisions -- including approval for certain housing projects -- would be decided by voters rather than elected or appointed officials. Development would be restricted to five already-urbanized areas. The plan calls for new projects to set aside at least 30 percent of units for low-income families.

Immigrant advocates say the LandWatch initiative would allow the heavily white populations of Carmel, Pebble Beach and Monterey, which often have higher voter turnout, to veto growth plans in Salinas Valley communities, which are home to mainly working-class Hispanics.

"Their plan basically says (to immigrants) that you can work in our restaurants, hotels and golf courses," says Alfred Diaz-Infante, president of a nonprofit home developer called Chispa. "But go home to your crowded conditions in Salinas at the end of the day."

LandWatch hoped to put its plan on the ballot in November, but the plan is tied up in San Francisco federal court. The court will decide whether a petition to qualify an initiative for the ballot complies with the Voting Rights Act if it was circulated only in English despite the fact that the area has many Spanish speakers.

Monterey County is advancing with its fourth draft of the general plan, which it hopes to adopt within months.

Meanwhile, the Alvarados, who came to Salinas in 1989 to pick lettuce, have had enough. They recently moved to Pasco, Wash., where they hope to seek work in the fields and be able to buy a home. "It got too expensive in Salinas," Mrs. Alvarado says.



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