Tulare County Housing Authority staff removed from farm labor centers after housing allegations
Farmworking families allege intimidation and questions over immigration status, forcing some families to leave at least two centers in Farmersville and Woodville.
FRESNO, Calif. – At least two staff members of the Tulare County Housing Authority were removed from offices at farm labor housing centers, KVPR has learned weeks after residents came forward with allegations they were discriminated against and forced out of their homes.
In an emailed response from Housing Authority Commissioner Raymond Macareno, he says, “both accused staff members have been stationed to work from the main [Housing Authority] office in Visalia. A new staff member is now handling all face to face interactions with tenants.”
In February, the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners learned families living at Farm Labor Housing Centers in Tulare County were forced out of their homes after staff questioned immigration status and served residents with three-day notices to quit their leases.
Macareno, in response to questions from KVPR, said at least 17 families were served the three-day notices between September 2022 and February 2023. Families and advocates said families began receiving notices and leaving the housing centers in 2021.
Macareno disputed that evictions took place. He said no official eviction processes were started since residents left their homes soon after the notices arrived. Three-day notices are the first step in an eviction process.
Advocates for the families previously told KVPR families took the notices to mean they needed to leave their homes immediately – adding that as many as 50 families may have received notices.
The board of commissioners learned from families and advocates that residents reported being intimidated by Housing Authority staff at at least two centers in Farmersville and Woodville. A list of allegations was shared with the commissioners, including threats to call immigration officials on residents if they did not comply with notices.
“The Housing Authority of Tulare County takes [these] allegations very seriously, and launched a full investigation,” Macareno said in an email.
Tulare County has around 400 units for non-migratory farmworking families at labor centers. These rental facilities, commonly known as “housing camps,” are scattered across the state and act as stable housing for low-income farmworking families who don’t typically move around for work.
After a board of commissioners meeting last week, farmworking residents felt many questions are still unanswered. Community members held handmade signs that read ‘Our Voices Matter’, ‘My Housing My Family,’ ‘Keep Families Home.’
Initially, many families were keeping the evictions silent out of fear of jeopardizing any immigration cases or for fear of being reported to authorities.
Nonprofit advocacy group Central Valley Empowerment Alliance has worked closely with families who left the centers. Executive director Mari Perez-Ruiz attended the meeting to speak on behalf of the farmworkers.
“The families are here. They show up and they're going to continue to show up because
they're relying on all of us to provide them with the resources they need,” said Perez-Ruiz.
After the initial meeting with evicted families on Feb. 15, the board voted to launch an investigation into the allegations of mistreatment at Linnell and Woodville.
Macareno said the search for an outside investigator is ongoing but no decision on which investigator has been made yet. The board announced at the meeting that it would look to choose an investigator who can adequately respond to the allegations, including someone with immigration and housing law knowledge, as well as bilingual.
Commissioners also previously voted to suspend immigration requirements as it looked into the discrimination complaints from residents.
To live at the centers, families must provide proof of citizenship, residency or work authorization, as well as proof of employment in farming, and meet income qualifications.
The board of commissioners said it was granted special permission by the United States Department of Agriculture, which provides federal funding for farmworker housing, to allow evicted residents to return to their homes without needing to prove immigration status for at least a year.
Residents still confused
Perez-Ruiz said families still have questions over how to move forward following the recent board meeting.
“They were supposed to provide us with information about the next steps and where they’re at and we just feel like that did not happen either,” Ruiz said.
Lucia Rivas, a former resident at the housing centers, spoke in Spanish during public comment. She said she used to live at the Linnell Farm Labor Housing Center in Farmersville, but was forced to leave the camp and had to find housing she couldn’t afford.
“I’m here because my rent is very high. I pay $1,800… So I’m here trying to find out if we’re going to move back or not,” an interpreter asked on behalf of Rivas.
Families who left the centers have been invited back to their homes, although it remains unclear how many, if any, have returned. The board also voted at their most recent meeting to authorize residents with an H2A visa or federal work authorization to apply for residency in the housing units – something that wasn’t previously implemented at the centers but is allowed through the USDA, commissioners said.