Santa Maria repeals H-2A housing ordinance to avoid federal fine, litigation


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The Santa Maria City Council reluctantly voted to repeal its employee housing ordinance on June 15 after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said it may be discriminatory and that the city could incur a $400,000 fine if the council did not repeal it.

Director of Community Development Chuen Ng said at the meeting that HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity first opened its investigation into the city’s ordinance in April 2020. This was followed up by a HUD secretary initiated complaint in August 2020.

“The complaint alleges that the city unlawfully discriminated because of race, color, or national origin by restricting housing for H-2A farmworker visa holders within the city, in violation of the Fair Housing Act,” Ng said. “After further investigation and review, the city received in May 2021 a consent proposal … from HUD, which had determined that the city must repeal and not enforce its employee housing ordinance.”

First adopted in June 2019, the ordinance permits employee housing in multi-family zones, but requires a conditional use permit in single family zones. HUD alleged that regulating which zones H-2A workers can live in amounts to a “restriction of housing for people from a specific foreign country or national origin, defined as a federally protected class, and may be discriminatory,” Ng explained.

HUD offered the city a voluntary compliance agreement, which the city council voted in favor of 3-2 on June 15. This agreement means the city will no longer enforce its employee housing ordinance, and HUD will not levy a fine or pursue legal action against the city.

Ng said that the agreement does not act as a “final finding or a determination by HUD that the city intentionally engaged in unlawful practices.”

City Attorney Thomas Watson said he does not agree with HUD’s initial determination that the city’s ordinance may be discriminatory. But, he cautioned, if the city didn’t sign on to the voluntary compliance agreement, the fine might have been even steeper than $400,000.

If the city hadn’t repealed it, there was “potential that a court would make a finding that the city inadvertently or intentionally was discriminatory, which I do not believe and which we deny emphatically,” Watson said. “And this agreement does not make such a finding.”

For this reason, he and city staff supported adopting the agreement. During the public hearing portion of the meeting, former Santa Maria City Attorney Philip Sinco, the principal author of the ordinance, said he does not believe it is discriminatory as it “only applies to employers who provide housing to their employees,” not individual persons.

“I’m not speaking in support or opposition to staff’s recommendation. I fully understand the recommendation and the reasons for it,” he said. “I’m only speaking as to my personal position that the city’s ordinance does not violate any state or federal laws.”

Councilmember Michael Cordero said he does not agree with HUD’s discrimination allegations, but he voted to repeal the ordinance because, in his words, “We don’t have much of a choice in this matter.”

“I disagree in the sense that there’s anything that we did as a council that represents anything remotely close to being against any segment of the community, of which the H-2A workers are a very important part of,” Cordero said. “We took input from all the stakeholders over a long period of time in various places in the community in order to do the best job that we possibly could.”

Cordero and Councilmembers Gloria Soto and Carlos Escobedo each voted to repeal the ordinance and adhere to HUD’s voluntary compliance agreement, while Mayor Alice Patino and Councilmember Etta Waterfield voted no.

“We live here,” Waterfield said before the vote. “We understand our neighbors, we understand what they’re going through, and when we make a decision, it gets undermined by the state or by the feds. And so I’m just really disappointed with this action.” Δ

—Malea Martin


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