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Agency addresses stereotypes, policies to develop affordable rural and migrant housing projects

Developing affordable rural and farm worker housing involves more than building with wood and nails. 

Marty Miller, director of the Office for Rural and Farm Worker Housing (ORFH) in Yakima, knows that from growing up on a 20-acre apple orchard near Selah.

Martin Marty
Marty Miller of the Office for Rural
and Farm Worker Housing

He educates the public to overcome stereotypes, influence public policies, and form partnerships of bankers, landowners, contractors and agencies to create new housing projects.

After completing studies in political science at Whitworth University in 1989, he worked with Habitat for Humanity in Americus, Ga., and Portland, Ore., served on the staff of former Senator Brock Adams in Washington, D.C., and completed master’s studies at Eastern University at Philadelphia in 1993.

Marty came back to the Northwest 15 years ago as housing developer at ORFH.  He became executive director in 2004.

Nudged by Whitworth professors, he considered how his faith, nurtured growing up in First Presbyterian Church in Yakima and being involved in Young Life, influenced his political beliefs and vocational choices.

Although his motivation is faith-based, the Office for Rural and Farm Worker Housing is an “eclectic group” of people with different motivations.  Some have a secular desire for social justice for fairness and equality.  Others just support affordable housing.

As a statewide, nonprofit developer, ORFH has worked behind-the-scenes for 30 years to create partnerships, acquire land, deal with zoning issues, secure public and private funding, select contractors and oversee construction.

It has facilitated building more than 1,100 units serving more than 5,500 people throughout the state—mostly in Central Washington from the Tri Cities to the Okanogan and in Skagit County, where agriculture is strong.

While Marty believes those units contribute, he knows how modest the number is in the face of the overall demand for farm-worker housing.

He estimates that more than 40,000 units are needed because of the size of Washington’s $8 billion agricultural industry with a workforce of hundreds of thousands of people who are paid low wages for seasonal employment.

“The economic incentive drawing farm workers to the agricultural industry creates a significant demand for affordable housing,” he said.

Marty explained, “The average farm-worker household has four to five people, and their average income is $17,000.  About 70 percent of farm workers are year-round residents and about 30 percent remain migrant.

“To afford housing on that income is a challenge,” he said.  “Without a group like ours, few organizations can provide housing that is affordable for families with such low incomes.  It takes public investment, as well as private loans, to provide affordable rent.”

ORFH helps secure public funding
from the State Housing Trust Fund, the Federal Department of Agriculture and tax credits that draw private investors to build and rent the housing.

ORFH also uses the Washington Community Reinvestment Association.  Participating banks put money into the association, which lends the money.  Many banks share the risk, rather than one bank directly underwriting a project on its own.

 “When farm workers have an opportunity to settle out of the migrant stream, they take it,” Marty said.  “Migrant work is a tough life.”

Research indicates that most migrant families
are in farm work just a generation and a half.  While parents stay in it, the children may start in farm work, but go to school and seek jobs that are less demanding and better paying. 

“The second generation usually leaves farm work, so there is a continual need for new farm workers, generating new waves of migration to fill the needs of agriculture,” he said.

Marty knows how hard it was for his father to run a small apple orchard, supplementing his income by selling insurance.  In the 1980s, mom-and-pop apple orchards went through tough times. Many farms consolidated to form bigger, more efficient operations. 

His family’s orchards started by using conventional farming methods and later organic methods, which was difficult because of the small size of their operation.

Learning of political processes and realities while in Washington, D.C., Marty realized he was drawn to community-based work similar to what he did with Habitat for Humanity. 

So he attended Eastern University in Pennsylvania to study economic development with Tony Campolo, an evangelical Christian focusing on social justice.

“I gained tools and skills to make a difference by incorporating my faith values at the community level,” Marty said.

As a graduate assistant helping nonprofits create education and job opportunities for the poor, he realized that to share Christ’s love, “we need to help meet the needs of people for daily living, to show Christ’s love by making sure people have food, clothing, shelter, education and jobs,” he said.  “That fit where I felt my faith was leading me: to address the needs of the poor and those typically left out.”

From his work, Marty sees need for immigration reform.

“The system is broken. The agricultural industry relies on a migrant work force, but immigration policies do not support legal means to recruit and retain workers.  We need immigration reform that welcomes hard-working people who are good members of the community,” said Marty, aware of discrimination against farm workers.

“Farm workers are members of the community and deserve housing,” he said.
In one community, ORFH identified and purchased property, had it zoned for multi-family housing and had building permits approved, when a residents’ group appealed the building permit. 
One man said, “It’s not the buildings we don’t want.  It’s the people in them.”

The people, however, already lived in the community, but in unaffordable, substandard housing, Marty said.
 
In court, ORFH lost the first hearing, but the Superior Court overturned that decision.

“At the core of the neighbors’ reaction is fear of change,” he said.  “While some opponents are willing to listen and have their fears resolved, a few will not change their views, which are often based on stereotypes.  Aside from the few, we have many supporters.”

Marty, a member of Wesley United Methodist Church with his wife Amy, said ORFH holds volunteer community meetings early in the process to facilitate education.

“While there is still discrimination, I know there are also many dedicated people who want to see their communities be strong, vibrant and open to people in all walks of life,” he said.
Among them are many in churches providing food, clothing and shelter.

“With the state budget deficit and economic climate, the future of affordable housing will be challenging,” he said. “As more people lose their jobs and homes, there will be more need for affordable rental housing.

“I am optimistic that we will create new models to provide affordable housing as an economic stimulus in these times,” Marty said.

For information, call 248-7014 or email martym2@orfh.org.