Some housing authorities in southwestern Idaho are struggling to keep up with a rising demand for affordable housing that is the result of a large increase in farm businesses seeking temporary foreign guest workers under the H-2A visa program.
Agricultural producers who use the program are required to provide housing for the workers.
The Capital Press reports the Caldwell Housing Authority, which operates the Farmway Village public housing complex for domestic farm workers and low-income individuals, received its first request to house H-2A workers three years ago.
Two years ago, the village housed 25 H-2A workers in eight units. The following year, that total grew to 80 people in 19 units. Next year, Farmway Village will house 214 H-2A workers in 35 units.
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"We are scrambling to get all the units together for this next year," said CHA Executive Director Mike Dittenber.
Local farmer Sid Freeman, a member of the CHA board of directors, warned the housing authority three years ago that the need for H-2A housing would soon become a tidal wave.
"I think we are at the (beginning) of that tidal wave," Dittenber said.
Freeman said CHA has been contacted by farm businesses that have asked what it would take to rent every room in the Farmway Village complex, which has 225 units.
"Right now, we're just managing the situation," he said. "We're trying to raise awareness among our surrounding communities of what the situation is because it's going to be explosive."
Meanwhile, CHA is considering building more housing units to help deal with the expected influx of H-2A workers, and it hired Jennifer Uranga, who owns a consulting business that specializes in H-2A issues, earlier this year to keep it appraised of the H-2A housing situation.
"We're trying to stay well abreast of the issue," Dittenber said. "I think there are going to be more and more H-2A workers in the valley. We want to pride ourselves on our ability to meet the needs of farmers."
Under the H-2A program, foreign guest workers stay in the United States for up to 10 months and then return home.
But the housing shortage is so critical that many farmers who use H-2A workers are renting units at Farmway Village for the entire year because "they just can't take the risk of not having the housing," Dittenber said.
Producers who want to use Farmway Village have typically been renting for the entire year and "lately, we have been trying to utilize the housing and have farmers 'share' or sub-lease units if they don't use them all year," Uranga said. "This helps us utilize the housing to maximum efficiency (so) more growers can submit H-2A applications."
Uranga said the only thing holding back a flood of H-2A applications from Southern Idaho farmers is a lack of housing.
"Just with my handful of clients, I could fill up 500 (additional) beds easily," she said. "But we can't do it right now because of the housing situation."