NAPA — Voters in this valley of wine likely will approve new dormitories for hundreds of migrant farmworkers who have been sleeping in cars or under the stars, a blight on the conspicuous prosperity of the region and its $4 billion showcase industry.
They are men such as Angel Sanchez Ortega, 38, a field hand born in Mexico who arrived two grape-picking seasons ago. Though he now shares a bunk room with his brother-in-law and a friend at an old county-administered camp, in the past he has retired to the front seat of his car to sleep.
“There is a demand for beds,” says Ortega, who makes around $400 a week for six days of work. “Build more camps. A lot of people need it.”
Just last week, five men in search of work, ages 18 to 24, showed up at a Roman Catholic church in St. Helena, a town of 6,000 in the valley’s north. They are sleeping on the porch of a building behind the sanctuary, a corner parcel that Monsignor John Brenkle has made a refuge for campesinos who often lack immigration papers and so can’t live at the county camps.
The problem is most acute during the fall harvest, when hundreds of workers — no one is sure just how many — come from Mexico to find jobs aplenty but a dearth of affordable housing.
Backers of Measure L, as the March 5 ballot proposal is called, call it a solution without a downside. The five new housing camps and 300 new beds it authorizes would nearly triple the supply of government-regulated accommodations. It would also ensure a pool of cheap and available labor for vineyard owners. There is no organized opposition.
The irony of public support for government-run camps is not lost on Volker Eisele, a vineyard owner and longtime civic activist. Such camps were the object of scorn in “The Grapes of Wrath,” he notes, a book so powerful it tattoos landowners with the mark of “the evil California growers exploiting the Okies.”
Presently, Napa County runs three permanent camps with 136 beds, plus a 40-bed cluster of yurts — squat and collapsible domes inspired by Mongolian nomads. Measure L would permit the new camps for single men who can show they are employed and have immigration papers. Cost would be $10 a day for room and board.
Though the measure allows for five new camps, only one is being planned, on land offered by Joseph Phelps Vineyards between a highway and the Napa River. The site’s two 30-bed dorms will be made of packed earth and some recycled materials. There is a central courtyard, space for a communal garden and a soccer field.
“The workers are here,” says Tom Shelton, chief executive of Joseph Phelps Vineyards. “This is just a more humane way of treating people.”
It’s also a bow to Napa County’s growing diversity. Hispanics were 14 percent of Napa County’s population in 1990 but had grown to 24 percent by 2000, according to census data.
Subsidizing some housing for the newcomers has become a point of social tension for working-class locals.
The opposition, to the extent it expresses itself, talks of a government subsidy pushed by a wine-growing elite that ignores Napa natives who can’t afford the high cost of living.
Dennis Korte, a Napa resident whose letters to the local paper make him the de facto opposition leader, says migrant workers should get decent apartments — just not in the pastoral valley.
“Bus them in,” said Korte, 54, a metal worker who says his niece had to move to neighboring Lake County to afford the rent. “I may sound a little bit racist to say this, but I think Measure L will kind of degrade the valley.”
In recent years the valley has gone upscale, fast. In the fall of 1999, the median home price was $188,000. Now it’s around $336,000. Trophy estates blotch the hills. Limousines pull up to country stores for afternoon sandwiches. Sometimes wine confers celebrity — Robert Mondavi an example — and sometimes celebrities — take Francis Ford Coppola — make wine.
Large vineyards stopped supplying housing in the late 1980s when many were bought by absentee corporations. The valley’s housing authority estimates 400 beds were lost. High wine prices also have seen denser planting and more labor-intensive methods. Vineyards now fit cheek-by-jowl along the valley floor and are creeping up into the hills.
That’s where Eisele lives on a ranch and vineyard with fantastic puffs of bright yellow mustard blooming between the columns of vines that march up the slopes behind his house.
A self-described “advocate for land preservation,” Eisele is also director of the Napa Valley Grape Growers Association and a Measure L supporter.
He sees Measure L as part of a larger push for affordable housing for migrant workers. The keystone of that movement, Eisele says, is a recent state law that lets vineyards tax themselves $10 per vine acre each year — money that will go to an affordable housing fund to include family apartments in the valley’s few cities.
Eisele will owe $600 per year for his 60-acre plot, but there are up to 45,000 acres of planted vine acres, county officials estimate, making for nearly a half-million dollar pot.
That will help solve a problem that has degenerated, Eisele says, into the charge that “whenever there’s a brown face under a bridge, it’s the fault of agriculture.” Now, he says, “we are all of a sudden ahead of the game.”
On the Net:
Napa Valley Grape Growers Association: http://www.napagrowers.org/
California Human Development Corp: http://www.chdcorp.org/chdcweb/documents/housing.htm