HALF MOON BAY, Calif. (KGO) -- With 40 miles of steep bluffs and sandy beaches, the San Mateo County coast is a paradise. But hidden among the multi-million dollar homes and picturesque farms there's a harsh reality that has been shrouded from view. A secret that was easy to keep until Jan. 23, when prosecutors say a disgruntled farmworker opened fire on fellow workers at two mushroom farms.
Prosecutors charged Chunli Zhao, 66, with killing four co-workers at California Terra Garden and then driving to his former job at Concord Farms and killing three other people he used to work with.
Zhao told investigators he was upset over working long hours. A tipping point for him might have been a $100 repair bill for damaged equipment.
As authorities investigated the tragedy, they were confronted with a well-know secret of deplorable living conditions for farmworkers and their families.
Days after the shooting, San Mateo County Supervisor Ray Mueller visited the site and posted photos on Twitter.
They show a gathering space with just plywood for floors, walls made of plastic, camping stoves used for cooking and metal sheds substituting as homes.
"Horrible, horrific, deplorable conditions," explained Supervisor Mueller. "We saw basically what looked like sheds, storage containers, that people were living in. No insulation. Nowhere you would ever want to prepare food. It's a mess."
Cal-OSHA is looking into workplace safety and health violations as well as labor violations since some workers said they were being paid below minimum wage.
Since the tragedy happened, San Mateo County officials have been exploring how these workers fell through the cracks of labor laws and basic housing standards, and if frustration over living and working conditions led to this terrible tragedy.
For social services agencies that work with farmworkers, the deplorable conditions were no secret.
"This is nothing new for us, what we're seeing" said Belinda Hernández-Arriaga, founder of the nonprofit Ayudando Latinos a Soñar (ALAS). "We were there at least once a week for the past three years giving out food, giving them rain gear, whatever we could do to make a difference economically."
Organizations like ALAS and Puente de la Costa Sur have been advocating for better housing for farmworkers for years. Farms allow these groups to go onto their properties and provide resources for workers.
Hernández-Arriaga, like other social workers, acknowledge the living conditions are bad, but they worry about the reality of reporting it.
They fear the site could get shut down and the residents evicted, which could easily leave them homeless.
San Mateo County Supervisor Noelia Corzo has been advocating for affordable housing and fighting for immigrant rights since she was a community organizer and then a social worker.
During a recent board meeting she addressed the delicate situation social workers face when confronted with the dire living conditions of farmworkers.
"As a social worker, I many times walked into a situation where there were concerning living conditions and then you are faced with the reality that if I make this report or if I tell this family to make this report then they will not have this housing available to them," she explained.
It's a catch-22 caused by the high cost of housing in the area.
"Half Moon Bay is very expensive," said Joaquín Jiménez, vice mayor of Half Moon Bay. "That is why farmworkers live anywhere they can. They're renting space in a garage, in a living room. They are renting a couch. They have a place to sleep and that's it."
Jiménez, who also works at ALAS as farmworker program director, points at a small plaza on Half Moon Bay's Main Street. On any afternoon there are farmworkers gathered there.
He explains that they are there to pass the time. The plaza is like their living room. They are there until it is time to sleep.
"This is where they hang out," Jiménez said. "People get together here to socialize with other community members because they are not able to go where they sleep. They only go there to sleep."
Rita Mancera, executive director of Puente de la Costa Sur, adds, "Most of the farmworkers that live in this area live in crowded conditions because the rents are so high. Two families rent one place so they can afford the cost. I know families who live in trailers and pay $1,000 a month. It's the only way they can afford it."
Like the rest of the Bay Area, Half Moon Bay, Pescadero and other communities along the San Mateo County coast face a housing crunch.
An average one-bedroom lists for nearly $2,500 a month. That is out of reach for a farmworker making less than $30,000 a year.
"Farmworkers not only live in the farms, crowded, really bad conditions, but also in the community," said Jiménez. "They rent an apartment, they rent a house, but they rent per room. So they get together with two or three families and they rent a room."
He estimates that there are about 2,000 farmworkers in Half Moon Bay. He said at least half of them need better housing.
"Half Moon Bay is an agricultural community with farming, ranching and fishing," said Jiménez. "Every decade we see less farmworkers in our community. Less farmers in our community."
The lack of affordable housing is transforming the economy around Half Moon Bay.
In 2018, the agricultural industry grossed an estimated $150 million. But by 2021, that number had plummeted to $98 million.
Both farmers and farmworkers are struggling to survive.
"If we lose our farmworkers, the farming industry will disappear. The key is to build housing. We need that housing," said Jimenez.
Farms are already disappearing. In 2017, San Mateo County had 241 farms, that was one-third less than just five years earlier.
By 2019, only 81 farms remained. One of the main reasons for the decline is that farmworkers can't afford to live in the area. On average, farmworkers earn less than 50% of the poverty level in San Mateo County, which is also one of the most expensive places to live in the country.
BJ Burns, owner of Bianchi Flower, has a long history of farming in San Mateo County. His grandfather started farming in the area. Now, Burns is just trying to hold on to the family business any way he can.
Besides being a farmer, he is also now a landlord.
He said many years ago he was approached to house farmworkers in his property. He has seven trailer homes for families and two barrack-style homes for single men.
He estimates there are about 60 workers that live in his property but only four work for him. Not all of them are farmworkers.
"What do you do when you have a farmworker family and all of a sudden they have a chance to make more money doing something else? Burns asks. "Do I throw them out?"
One of Burns' workers living at the farm is Ramón Pérez, a foreman at Bianchi Flowers, who resides in a trailer home with his wife and two children.
Pérez has lived there more than 25 years. Currently, he lives there rent free.
"The people in Half Moon Bay deserve better housing. It's sad to see people living like that," he said recalling the housing conditions of those living at the farms where the shooting happened.
Burns later showed us the barrack-style homes for single men. There are 10 men living there, two to a room.
"There is a lot of wear and tear," admits Burns. "Every year we try to stay on top of the stuff but you can see some of the floors need to be repaired," said Burns as he pointed at the linoleum covering the kitchen area.
Each worker pays $300 a month to share a room. Burns said he makes sure to replace appliances if they break down.
"We are not just going to collect rent," Burns said. "We are not going to abuse them, but there is a cost to take care of these houses. I provide gas and electricity and nothing is cheap anymore."
One of the workers sharing a room is Jesús. He has lived at Bianchi Flowers for six years even though he does not work there.
Speaking in Spanish, he explains that he likes living there despite having to share a room.
He wishes he could afford something better but after paying for rent and food he sends the rest to his money to his family in Mexico to fulfill a dream he has.
Inside a drawer he keeps a ziplock bag with several pictures inside that show a tractor and other equipment he has bought in Mexico for when he returns. His goal is to open a business there one day.
But the business is not his only motivator. Among the pictures he has photos of his daughters, 26-year-old Carmela and 18-year-old Aurora. He has never met his youngest daughter.
"I would love to have a better place for all of them but I can't afford it either," explains Burns. "So we try to do what we can do. We are here trying to survive."
San Mateo County's department of Environmental Health inspects housing sites, but not all of them.
Only those with five or more farmworkers require a permit. Smaller properties are outside the scope of inspectors, as are those not registered with the county housing program.
If no one complains, they remain hidden.
San Mateo County officials say neither California Terra Garden nor Concord Farms were permitted for employee housing.
Housing at Bianchi Flowers is inspected every year.
Burns is also the president of the San Mateo County Farm Bureau. He said the bureau didn't know people lived at the farms where the shootings took place.
"We don't know the operators there," Burns said. "They don't associate with us. They have never come to the farm bureau. We were totally surprised about what was going on in there."
Farmworkers are also afraid to report poor living conditions mostly because of their immigration status.
It is estimated that more than half the farmworkers in the county are undocumented. That forces them to live in the shadows.
Mancera said farmworkers are afraid of speaking up because of their legal status.
"They don't want to put their housing in jeopardy for anything," said Mancera. "It's time for them to speak upb but it's also time for them to be heard."
Rogelio Nabor Martínez has worked in farms for 22 years. Currently he has two jobs to provide for his family, including a daughter who is in college studying to become an immigration lawyer.
He knows why people don't complain.
"The owners don't charge them much rent so people know it's bad or dirty but since they don't pay much rent they just deal with it," said Nabor Martínez.
Eight families lived at California Terra Garden, paying about $300 a month in rent.
The operators of the mushroom farm dispute accounts that people lived in deplorable conditions. In a statement sent to ABC7 News, a spokesperson for California Terra Garden said the state inspected the mobile homes in their property.
After the shooting, the units were red-tagged and the residents had to move out. California Terra Garden is working with local officials to build permanent, regulated housing on another part of the farm.
San Mateo County has now set up a task force to inspect all of the farmworker housing along the coast.
But bringing housing up to standards is expensive. Supervisors approved $750,000 to house the families affected by the shooting for one year.
San Mateo County already has a loan program for landowners to build or refurbish housing for farmworkers.
But officials say the county does not have the resources to meet the need. They are seeking funds from the state and federal government to take further action.
For Mancera, it seems like a losing battle.
"Out of 36 farms that I know, two were successfully able to add housing to their farms in the last 15 years that I've been here," explained Mancera.
She said she has visited homes where the residents have a mattress on the side of the living room that they put down at night for people to sleep.
Jiménez is looking at the site of a nursery that shut down in 2019 as a possible solution. He envisions a housing complex with office space.
"Just think about it, you can work and live in the same location, but with proper housing," said Jiménez. "It should not take a tragedy to make change happen. Many people try to ignore what is happening in their community."
He is also looking at city-owned lots that are big enough to build 100 or more units.
His dream is to build more homes specifically for farmworkers, similar to Moonridge, an affordable housing community with 160 units built by MidPen Housing.
When the complex first opened, at least 50% of the residents were farmworkers. That number has dwindled in recent years.
"At one point, the people who got a lease here were farmworkers. But at this point, they may be construction workers or have other jobs because of how hard hit the industry is right now," said Andrew Bielak, associate director of development at MidPen Housing.
The site has a basketball court, a soccer field, a community center and a child care center.
Demand is so high that there are currently 240 people waiting to rent an apartment.
MidPenn is trying to keep up with demand. It is developing another housing complex at Moss Beach, about 10 miles from Half Moon Bay.
It would have 71 units, 18 of which would be reserved for farmworker housing.
"I think we need to continue to serve other people, not just farmworkers. I think farmworkers are a key part of that equation but I think we need to serve broader people who need housing as well. The need is so great," said Bielak.
That need also applies to the farms.
"Agriculture is going down in San Mateo County. I would say in the next 10 to 15 years there will be very little agriculture in this coast if we don't do something now," said Burns.
If you or someone you know is in need of housing or information on housing rights, go to abc7news.com/TakeAction.
You will also find information on donating to organizations offering resources for people impacted by the Half Moon Bay shooting here.
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