The Landscape of Farm Worker Housing: Issues and Trends

The Landscape of Farm Worker Housing: Issues and Trends
Don Villarejo
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This report analyzes the existing body of research on the extent, quality, and health impacts of farm worker housing. During the late 19th century and much of the 20th century, many farmers and ranchers offered on-farm living quarters to their laborers. However, a combination of regulations and changing immigration patterns led to the destruction of thousands of farm labor camps, which has pushed many workers into private, market-rate housing in cities. Farm workers are a vulnerable population that have high poverty rates and the lowest rates of medical insurance of any occupational category, and also lack many labor protections afforded other industries.

Major findings:

  • Nationally, many farm workers share homes with non-family members. Most citizen workers lived with 3.4 people per dwelling, or 1.2 families, while noncitizens lived with 4.7 people per dwelling, or 1.8 families.
  • Nationally, substantially fewer workers live in free, employer-provided housing today: while a quarter of workers lived in such housing in 1984, only one eighth lived in such housing in 2005-2007. In California, licensed labor camps declined from 2,000 to 496 from 1980 to 1987. Washington state addressed a farm labor housing shortage in 1999, when it created over a thousand permanent housing units over 7 years.
  • Few California farm workers are able to own their homes (23 percent); only in very rural, affordable locations does the homeownership rate surpass 50 percent. In North Carolina, a study found that two thirds of workers rented their homes, and that labor camp housing accounted for less than 20 percent of housing.
  • In Napa County, CA 61 percent of laborers lived in crowded conditions, and 34 percent in extremely crowded conditions, with an average of 5.9 people per dwelling unit.
  • Hazardous conditions are common in farm labor housing: unsafe drinking water, exposure to pesticides, inadequate heating, plumbing and electrical and pest infestations are commonly reported. In Washington, 35 percent of crop workers had at least one structural deficiency with their home.


  • Create more decent affordable housing, and also improve the existing affordable housing stock.
  • Advocates and policy-makers should oppose proposals by farm employers to use housing vouchers in place of the existing H-2A immigration requirements that make them provide worker housing.
  • Research is needed that links health and housing by assessing housing conditions and residents’ health status simultaneously.
  • A cross-sectional survey of the nation’s farm worker housing is needed.
  • Special attention needs to be given to the housing conditions of livestock workers, many of whom live on or near their work sites, which pose additional health risks not typically considered by studies of farm labor housing.
  • A cohort study should be performed that monitors the changes in health status of farm worker families who move to publicly subsidized private market housing from less adequate homes.
  • Future research on farm labor housing should include measures of the socioeconomic status of residents as independent variables.