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County okays housing for farm workers

Hillsborough County commissioners approved one farm-worker housing project Tuesday and agreed to give serious consideration to another, in what could be a breakthrough for migrants who live in overcrowded, substandard homes in Ruskin.

The commissioners said they will allow Ruskin farmer Don Sleight to replace 28 older buildings near a farm he manages with 28 new mobile homes.

They gave preliminary endorsement to a more complex proposal by former farmer George Todd Sr., who wants a county loan guarantee for a new mobile home park, also in Ruskin.

Neither plan is completely free from regulatory hurdles, and there are no fixed timetables. But commissioners said they were anxious to demonstrate their commitment to better housing conditions for farm workers, a commitment that has seen little in the way of results in the past four years.

They voted after several farm-worker advocates urged them to end the delays.

"Last week, a family came to see me, who were paying $100 a week for half a mobile home," said Bay Area Legal Services attorney Ricardo Meana. "That's $866 a month for a mobile home that they had to leave because it had no water and the sewer was backing up."

Anne Koch of Ruskin broke into tears as she described the mobile homes that are divided up into apartments, each one occupied by several families.

"When they say the need is desperate, they can't really say it enough," she said. "You don't even hear about it anymore because it has become a way of life."

More than two years ago, after a study illustrated a need for 1,850 new farm-worker homes, the commission gave its blessing to the Hillsborough Rural Community Development Corp., a non-profit housing corporation that tried to ease the shortage.

But the housing corporation has suffered many setbacks, and is just now building its first homes. The group has housed one family, and they are now focusing their efforts on homeownership.

The Todd plan would serve families who stay in the county only about six to eight months a year, and who often cannot afford to buy homes. Instead, these families would buy mobile homes and rent their lots.

A non-profit corporation would oversee the project, and it would use some of the lot rent to pay for a manager and maintenance.

The park would need an interim sewage treatment plant, which the county no longer allows. But the commissioners said they would consider waiving that rule if a more sophisticated treatment plant proves to be too expensive.

Commissioners made it clear to Todd that they will not give the project final approval until they hear more details, and that they must be sure the county will not incur too much financial risk.

Though the Todd proposal still needs work, the advocates in the audience volunteered to help. Meana said he could provide legal help, as long as the non-profit group includes enough farm workers to qualify under the Legal Services income guidelines.

The Rev. Jayne Ruiz, former director of a farm-worker mission, said, "If I can problem-shoot, help or pray, that's what I want to do."