A Prison Camp Transformed
Soledad property will become new housing for farmworkers.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
Some of the rundown homes have already been demolished at the old 72-unit farm labor camp on Benito Street in Soledad. The rest will be bulldozed soon to make way for a rebirth of sorts: new, affordable homes that will soon be built on top of this land with a troubled history.
In the 1940s, it was a camp used to detain World War II prisoners. A decade later the site was transferred Soledad’s Housing Authority, which used the former prison camp to house the families of Mexican workers here as part of the bracero program.
It’s been a farm labor camp ever since—with minimal improvements to the property. The three-bedroom units look like little boxes, with low ceilings and few windows.
“The new housing is going to be very attractive versus the ugly housing that is there now,” says Rep. Sam Farr, who was in Soledad on Wednesday, Oct. 18, to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for the new San Benito Street Farm Labor Center.
Soon, new homes will replace the decrepit camp. In phase one, expected to be completed by late July 2007, 73 town homes will be built expressly for farmworkers, along with parking and playgrounds for kids. The $17 million project is a partnership between Soledad’s and the County’s Housing Authority agencies. One piece of the funding—$4.2 million—comes from the US Department of Agriculture.
“All of these farm labor camps, they all need to be converted to farmworker housing,” Farr says. “The minute I saw the opportunity in Soledad, I thought this was win-win. The USDA is interested in building farmworker housing, but usually they don’t have the land.
“In the Salinas Valley, we need more housing like this. This workforce is permanent. We grow crops about 11 months out of the year. So this workforce that historically was migratory no longer is. Farmworker families are residents of Monterey County and need housing just like the rest of the workforce.”
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Phase two of the project will include 70 additional homes, a community room and a day-care center. Phase three will add 56 low-income units. Neither have a start date or funding secured.
While phase one’s 73 units will be limited to tenants who work in the fields, the second phase will be more flexible, says Starla Warren, director of development for the county’s Housing Authority. “This way, we can house people who work in the processing plants, the packing plants.”
The third phase town houses will be available to all low-income families.
Jose Gomez, executive director of the Soledad Housing Authority, says the new housing is at least half a dozen years in the making.
“I know that there were talks way back in 2000,” he says. “But the project never took off because of the financial component.”
In addition to the $4.2 million from the USDA, phase one includes the following funding sources: $1.2 million in construction and permanent financing from Citibank; $3.8 million in federal Housing and Urban Development funding; a $500,000 loan from the Soledad Redevelopment Agency; and $7 million in low-income housing tax credits.
“As soon as the dust settles, we’re going to start planning for phases two and three,” Gomez says. “We will be opening the doors to a wider range of opportunity for people in the hotel and restaurant industry.”
State Assemblyman Simón Salinas, who will represent the Salinas Valley on the Board of Supervisors come January, also attended the Oct. 18 ground breaking.
“I think it sets up some good models for specialty housing for other communities to look at,” Salinas says. “I hope that when people see what’s happening in Soledad, they’ll say, ‘Let’s do more of this in the Salinas Valley.’”