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Yakima farmworker complex biggest in Washington

The former FairBridge Inn and Suites is photographed on North First Street in Yakima, Wash., Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. The hotel was purchased in December by the owners of Borton Fruit. (Shawn Gust / Yakima Herald-Republic)
The former FairBridge Inn and Suites is photographed on North First Street in Yakima, Wash., Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. The hotel was purchased in December by the owners of Borton Fruit. (Shawn Gust / Yakima Herald-Republic)
By Phil Ferolito Yakima Herald-Republic

Yakima’s North First Street will become home to the state’s largest single farmworker rental complex when Valicoff Fruit begins housing guest workers in a former 800-bed hotel next month.

The project has caught the attention of Wafla, a labor recruiting firm formerly known as Washington Farm Labor Association, which has agreed to help manage the operation scheduled to open June 1.

Located at 1507 N. First St., the former FairBridge Inn and Suites was recently purchased by Valicoff Fruit with the intent to house seasonal workers.

Breakfast and sack lunches will be available to workers at the facility, and Wafla is in discussions with banks to provide workers with in-house check cashing services and other banking options.

“Management is going to place everything the workers need right at the site, and of course being in the city makes it more convenient for workers to access other services,” Wafla Executive Director Dan Fazio said in a news release announcing his agency’s involvement.

The project will help ease the financial burden of growers unable to tap guest worker programs such as H-2A because they lack housing. Growers have estimated the cost of building farmworker housing at $15,000 per bed.

Advocates say the project not only brings some relief to a long-standing housing shortage for migrant workers in the Yakima Valley, but could be a boon for the surrounding economy as well.

“It’s in town, which is a good thing,” said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League. “It provides a high quality of life for residents. They have access to entertainment, shopping when they have time off and that’s a great thing.”

Mayor Kathy Coffey said she hasn’t heard any concerns from neighboring businesses. But not everyone is enamored with the concept of placing farmworker housing — typically located in rural areas — in an urban setting.

Yakima City Councilwoman Dulce Gutierrez said farmworker housing doesn’t share the same residential standards as the city and therefore isn’t subject to the state Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, which requires landlords to make necessary repairs to provide safe and healthy living conditions, among other things.

“It’s very problematic if we have thousands of people living in the city who are not protected by the Landlord-Tenant Act,” she said. “That brings some liability to our city.”

Fazio dismissed Gutierrez’s concern, saying farmworker housing is licensed and routinely inspected by the state Department of Health and subject to inspections by other state and federal agencies.

He said the project will provide workers better options than they currently have.

“Who is protecting the workers who are sleeping in their cars? We intend to help operate a first-class housing experience for workers regardless of the Washington Residential Landlord-Tenant Act,” he said.

The Yakima City Council is discussing whether to devise a zoning plan for farmworker housing in residential areas, a move Gutierrez doesn’t support. She worries farmers will begin buying up apartment buildings to house farmworkers, further squeezing an already tight rental market.

“I’m worried that this could lead to the displacement of many families in the multifamily residential zones,” she said. “This is unchartered territory because no other city our size has done this.”

The hotel isn’t caught in this dilemma because it is in a commercial zone, which allows the temporary housing of multiple people.

The housing project would be operated like a hotel, with Valicoff Fruit providing staff to handle meal preparations and building upkeep while the labor association would provide an employee to address workers’ needs and conduct spot-check food inspections, Fazio said.

Growers will be responsible for transporting workers to job sites.

Up to four workers will occupy a room — where televisions and microwave ovens are furnished — at rates anywhere from $12 to $14 a day, which growers will pay, Fazio said.

Workers will have access to the hotel’s swimming pool and laundry facility, he said.

Borton Fruit initially bought the hotel in January for $3 million before reselling it to Valicoff Fruit. Former hotel owner Steve Rice announced plans to reopen the hotel, but then sold the property to Borton, saying the city failed to follow through with promised improvements to North First Street.

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