The Florida Legislature passed a bill that could clear the way for farmworker housing

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Farmworkers harvesting tangerines by JackF via iStock for WMNF News.

By Jim Turner 2 hrs ago ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s agriculture industry hopes a newly passed bill that would limit local regulations on farmworker housing will bolster efforts to bring in more non-immigrant foreign workers.

The bill (SB 1082), which lawmakers unanimously passed, would prevent cities and counties from taking steps to “inhibit” the construction of housing for farmworkers on agricultural land. The bill has not been formally sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who can sign, veto or allow the legislation to become law without his signature.

The industry says some growers have cut back on planting this year, and might again next year, in part because of a labor shortage related to the state’s crackdown on undocumented migrants.

The bill could help with bringing in temporary, non-immigrant foreign workers through what is known as the federal H-2A visa program. The program places housing requirements on employers.

“There are some farmers who did not plant as much this season because they couldn’t get the workers they needed,” Jim Spratt, a lobbyist for the Florida Ag Coalition, said. “One of the big reasons they couldn’t is they could not secure housing quick enough or at the level they needed for the number of guest workers they needed.”

Spratt said the process can take up to eight months for farmers’ applications to be processed. The hope is that clearing the way for housing on agricultural land will help. But even that will take time to ramp up.

“We still may see some acres not planted in 2026,” Spratt said. “But I think, assuming the bill is signed into law, I think that gives a producer, it gives a farmer some certainty that they would be able to put housing on some of their ag land per the requirements of the bill. So, maybe the fall-off won’t be as bad as it could have been.”

The industry anticipates enough housing will go up for 52,000 workers statewide.

Construction would need to follow federal, state and local building standards, including Florida Department of Health standards.

The Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties did not take positions in support or opposition of the bill.

But Hendry County Commissioner Emory “Rowdy” Howard in a March 7 editorial in the News-Press newspaper in Southwest Florida raised concerns that the legislation could affect local property values.

“Hendry County cannot support a bill that prevents our local officials from managing and enforcing common sense planning and zoning so the ordinary homeowner is not at risk of losing significant home value because migrant housing had a negative impact on their property value,” Howard wrote.

Howard also contended that the H-2A program has been “crafted and watered down to the point it will allow many of those crossing the border illegally to be participants in this proposed program.”

During a Senate Agriculture Committee meeting in January, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association Chairman David Hill said the proposal was intended so that farmers would not be “at the whim of the different municipalities and counties, or whoever governs wherever they’re trying to build.”

“We can grow our crop, but without harvesting it we might as well not grow the crop,” said Hill, an owner of Southern Hill Farms in Clermont. “No one is going to pick the crops that we grow except for the people we’re trying to bring over, in H-2A in particular.”

The bill would require housing structures to have a minimum 10 feet of separation and also includes other restrictions, such as that the housing could not be within 250 feet of a property line adjacent to residential property. Any structure within 500 feet of neighboring residential property would need to have trees, walls, berms or fences to provide “screening.”

Also, the housing structures would have to be removed if they are not used for at least a year or if the property ceases to be classified as agricultural.

The bill came after DeSantis in 2023 signed a law that requires all businesses with 25 or more employees to use the federal E-Verify system to check the immigration status of workers. The state has increased its focus on undocumented immigrants the past several years.

The 2023 law also cracked down on people who bring undocumented immigrants into Florida.

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