By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer

In the late 1960s, local leaders in the Napa Valley looked to the future and saw it was green. Or, at least, they were determined that it would stay that way.

In preserving mile upon mile of land for strictly agricultural use, the idea was to keep the valley rural and the world-famous wine-producing reputation thriving. Preservation ordinances remain intact today, as is visible during any visit to the region. Soft rolling hills partly covered in vineyards and orchards are the beautiful Napa Valley’s signature features.

There’s a touch of irony here, because the motivation to keep the valley green also means the very people who are paid to do just that – thousands of farmworkers must commute up to 50 miles one way every day to reach the fields where they work. To keep the valley green land cannot be used for affordable housing for low-wage laborers, whether they work in agriculture or the service industries, both of which are vital to the local economy. These workers are also the least able to afford a costly commute.

In St. Helena, where local farmworkers earn higher wages compared to the rest of the state, affordable rental units are still nonexistent; the average price for a home in the Napa Valley is more than $1 million. St. Helena has just two affordable family apartment complexes. Both consistently have waiting lists.

Many Napa Valley residents, leaders and business owners have resisted affordable housing construction. Yet, some say these workers deserve to be able to live nearby.

“Land here is very valuable,” said Mary Stephenson, who leads the St. Helena housing advocacy group Our Town St. Helena (OTSH), which advocates offering affordable housing to agricultural workers in the wine-growing town. “And it’s very difficult unfortunately to get land here to build housing.”

In St. Helena, where local farmworkers earn higher wages compared to the rest of the state, affordable rental units are still nonexistent; the average price for a home in the Napa Valley is more than $1 million. St. Helena has just two affordable family apartment complexes. Both consistently have waiting lists.

Stephenson cites an additional problem.

“The Napa Valley has become a very popular place to live and so a lot of people with a lot of money have moved here,” she said. A Napa Valley native, Stephenson says that times have changed from when she was a child, and the community felt smaller and more familiar. Today, she says, “The people picking the grapes aren’t part of the community as they were even when I was raising my kids. Back then, my kids went to school with their kids. It was the essence of a small town.”

Today’s Napa Valley farmworkers also must compete with young hospitality industry workers for housing. Whereas in the past many farmworkers migrated up and down California’s Central Valley and coast, studies show that these workers now seek a more permanent residency, in part because they bring their families and enroll their children in local schools. Forced to seek homes in less affluent areas, the farmworkers must commute long distances to their jobs in the wineries in and around St. Helena.

Meanwhile, the roads leading into and throughout the valley have become notoriously congested during the years; the result, many argue, of commuter traffic serving the agricultural industry.

But at least the issue has gained traction and come to the fore, after a local winery earlier this year agreed to build housing for its workers on its property. This move, however, followed on the heels of initial resistance and confusion surrounding zoning laws, which govern the 38,000 acres of land called the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve.

Napa County’s zoning laws require that at least two acres of Preserve land be set aside for farmworker housing, and that no more than 12 units of housing exist on those two acres. This is problematic, according to Paul Ainger, RCAC’s Development Solutions manager.

“I mean, if I am a farmer and I wanted to provide 12 units, or less, of farm labor housing on my land, I could do it on a lot less than two acres,” said Ainger. “Two acres is more than what is needed for 12 units of housing, so farmers simply do not build the housing. This is discouraging.”

This hasn’t stopped the effort, however.

In 2008, Mercy Housing made progress to develop 10 acres known as the Romero property in St. Helena, for a mix of market-rate and affordable housing. The following year neighbors with concerns about the project formed St. Helena Residents for Responsible Growth (SHRFRG) and called for “limited-impact development.” In response, Mercy reduced the project scope from 112 units to 98.

At the same time, the City of St. Helena started to revise its general plan, with an aim to complete it within a year. But as the year unfolded, community consensus was lacking. Mercy later withdrew from the project.

OTSH then entered into an agreement to purchase the Romero property with a much more modest plan calling for a 60- unit development. At this point, RCAC began to work with OTSH, which was, at the time, an advocacy group not a nonprofit developer. The plan fell through, however, when OTSH was ultimately unable to finance the property’s purchase.

Then, in 2012, OTSH regrouped. It approached the owners of Hall Wine, who agreed, in principle, to lease one-half acre of unused land on winery property to build and maintain 12 rental housing units for very low- and low-income farmworkers. The project would be sustainable, with a photovoltaic system and high efficiency air conditioning and heating. But, it stalled when the winery sought county approval of a high-end vacation rental project next to its property. The owners want approval for this project before they move forward with the farm labor housing units.

Meanwhile, OTSH and RCAC commissioned Mogavero Notestine and Associates to develop an architectural prototype that they are shopping to other vintners in the area.

According to Paul Ainger, “The hope is that this prototype can be used to recruit other vintners to agree to provide sites for more affordable housing for both farmworkers and lower income families who work in the local hospitality industry.”

RCAC continues to provide critical support to OTSH as it works toward developing additional affordable rental projects in the St. Helena area.

OTSH, with RCAC’s assistance, also is looking to provide homeownership opportunities to the city’s lower income families. The two agencies secured an agreement with the City of St. Helena to build at least six homes for very low- and low-income families on a half-acre parcel on McCorkle Street through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Mutual Self-Help Housing program. This represents St. Helena’s first self-help housing development since 1990.

Clearly, after years of inertia, there is some positive momentum for building affordable housing in the Napa Valley, thanks to the commitment of local groups such as OTSH. There is now a growing recognition that providing homes for the farmworkers and other low- and very low-income families who work in the valley but can no longer afford to live there, will benefit not only the workers, but the region as a whole.