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Migrant housing too often is discouraged

Bureaucratic concerns should not overshadow the mission to provide decent homes for migrant workers who are desperately poor and devoid of political clout.

In Hillsborough County, many of the estimated 35,000 farm workers live in deplorable conditions, often crammed 10 and 12 people to a trailer. Some pay as much as $600 a month for filthy dwellings without heat or proper plumbing. Children live and play in Third World surroundings.

So when a farm manager offers to spend $300,000 to replace old farm-worker housing, he should be cheered by the Hillsborough County Commission.

Instead, Don Sleight of Deseret Farms nearly saw his simple idea derail during a workshop on farm-worker housing recently. County staff members said he'd need a rezoning. Then they wanted to refer it to a special task force. Finally they settled on a 12-day delay.

George Todd Sr. fared even worse. The former grower suggested the county guarantee loans for a non-profit group to provide mobile homes for transient and year-round farm workers in Ruskin. The reaction from the majority of the commissioners ranged from tepid to hostile. Even CommissionerPhyllis Busansky, considered a key advocate for migrant worker housing, appeared more interested in ending the meeting promptly than discussing the complex issues surrounding such an innovative project.

It was a perfect illustration of how bureaucratic inertia and political resistance contribute to the critical shortage of farm worker housing in Hillsborough County.

Housing proposals should be examined carefully, particularly those that require county money. Affordable housing should not be used to weaken needed growth management laws or to create ghettos.

Still, the need cannot go ignored. A 1989 study estimated that there is a need for 1,850 homes for Hillsborough's farm worker population. The Hillsborough Rural Community Development Corp., which the commission helped form, has little to show for its two years of existence.

Commissioners need to lead the diverse and often mistrustful groups of farm worker advocates, farmers and regulatory agencies to a solution. They instead seem determined to discourage the few people who want to help.