MOUNT VERNON, Wash.—Faced with a housing shortage for workers, a farmer in Skagit County offers an unconventional solution that could turn old farm buildings into apartments.
While farmworker housing – subsidized apartments reserved for farmworkers – is crucial to sustaining the workforce, there is a shortage of supply in the county.
Tony Wisdom, the owner of Skagit Valley Farms and the man who would like the county to allow the conversion of old farm buildings into housing, knows the difficulties his workers have in finding housing.
Each year, more and more of his seasonal and year-round workers come to him for help in finding a rental.
The few rental units available are too expensive, causing families to double or even triple the number of apartments.
Wisdom’s idea is making its way into the county’s planning process. If the Skagit County Board of Commissioners thinks it’s a worthwhile idea, it could be studied, modified and brought back for a vote on whether to approve it.
Wisdom said it has no plans to build on active farmland, just repurposing existing buildings.
He said a quality workforce requires an adequate supply of housing.
“Farming is extremely tied to the DNA of Skagit County,” Wisdom said. “One of the ways to keep farming going in Skagit is to make sure we have a good, strong workforce.”
Allen Rozema, executive director of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, said Wisdom’s assessment of the issue was correct. Rozema knows of larger farms in the county that buy entire apartment complexes in cities to house their workers.
However, he and others are hesitant to fully endorse Wisdom’s proposal, saying it doesn’t address potential impacts.
Rozema said a real solution will take careful planning and thought, not just the stroke of a pen.
“It’s a much bigger issue than rezoning some land, and that’s what we think this proposal is,” he said.
The current development code allows temporary structures — such as trailers or mobile homes — to be used as dwellings on farmland, and each can house a family, according to Jenn Rogers, the county’s deputy long-term planner.
What Wisdom’s proposal would do is allow for larger permanent structures.
Wisdom plans to repurpose old, underutilized farm buildings that exist on his farm and other farms in the county.
Some of the farmland he buys or leases comes with an old farmhouse. Today it’s a selling point because it means he can rent the place out to a family of farm workers, he said.
“In order to find good people, we had to enter the housing market,” Wisdom said.
Throughout the land, his farm rents and owns a handful of abandoned dairy buildings. He and other farmers tend to use these buildings as warehouses, but Wisdom thinks they could be converted or rebuilt to keep the same style, but serve as housing for workers.
“I’ve got probably 20 to 30 (farm workers and their families) who would be willing to get on it,” Wisdom said. “The aesthetic stays the same, but you add a ton of value.”
Wisdom said he had four or five such buildings on his properties. Turning them into accommodation for 40 to 50 people would be a game-changer, he said.
Regarding the cost of transforming such buildings, Wisdom said he believes there are enough investors who want to invest in the future of farming in the county, even if it means a lower return. .
Ideally, a management company or nonprofit organization would fund and manage the property on behalf of the farm, he said.
“I am not a rental agency. I am a farmer and need farm worker accommodation,” Wisdom said.
There are a number of non-profit agricultural worker housing projects in the county. They are primarily operated by the Housing Authority of Skagit County and Catholic Community Services.
“They’re great, but we need 20 more,” Wisdom said.
Rozema said Wisdom’s plan aims to solve a complex problem with a simple solution.
“A one-off proposal won’t even begin to attempt to solve this problem,” Rozema said.
Building apartment-style housing on rural land has impacts on traffic, parking and utilities, and Wisdom’s proposal makes no suggestions on how to study or manage those impacts, Rozema said.
He also has no plan to enforce rules that would restrict occupation to agricultural workers, he said.
“Multifamily housing in rural areas, especially our main agricultural areas, requires a lot of thought and consideration,” Rozema said.
He said his organization is committed to protecting farmland and that it would be best to keep dense housing in cities while preserving farmland.
“We can find a solution that doesn’t put our farmland at risk,” Rozema said.
Beyond that, Rozema said workers in all kinds of low-wage industries are struggling to find housing. He said the county should consider workforce housing as a whole, not just farm worker housing.
Rozema said a multi-year planning process, such as what the county is currently doing with agritourism, would bring together representatives of the business sector, housing advocates and civic leaders, and shine a light on ideas that could make a real breach in the problem.
It is possible that on-farm accommodation such as that envisaged by Wisdom could be part of this plan, but this decision should come after an analysis of the potential impacts, he said.
“We think it takes more time and attention than a year-long compensation plan amendment process allows,” Rozema said.
Jose Ortiz, a longtime advocate for farmworkers at the state and local levels, also has reservations.
Although he acknowledges that housing is urgently needed and that Wisdom’s idea could work, it makes him nervous to endorse a system in which an employer owns an employee’s housing.
“Can you imagine if your company owned your house? ” he said. “If you don’t show up for work, do you have to move?” I have seen this happen.
Ortiz’s dream is to build community housing for farm workers, where people who work for any producer could live.
Like Ortiz, Melanie Corey, executive director of the Skagit County Housing Authority, said dense housing really belongs in cities.
Corey’s organization runs several housing complexes for farmworkers and in 2021 opened a complex specifically for migrant farmworkers.
However, she said it’s not yet clear how much of an impact this new resort will have, as pandemic-related occupancy restrictions have limited the resort’s capacity.
The Skagit County Board of Commissioners is due to decide at 11 a.m. on June 14 whether Wisdom’s proposal deserves further consideration.
If included in the filing, county staff will engage in legal research and review of the proposal. It will be the subject of months of study, with multiple opportunities for public comment.