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Case Study: Farmworker Housing

Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians

The Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians (or Torres Martinez) are a federally recognized Indian Tribe based in Thermal, California. They administer housing improvement, youth development, education, childcare, employment, training, and environmental programs to benefit their tribal members. These programs are funded by over $20 million of Federal grant funds.

Torres Martinez was created through a Federal Executive Order in 1876 and currently supports 30 full-time staff members. The Reservation is comprised of 24,000 acres in the counties of Riverside and Imperial in California's Coachella Valley. Torres Martinez has 800 enrolled members, about half of which live on or near the Reservation.


With a recent $650,000 HUD Rural Housing and Economic Development grant, the tribe and its partners are developing the Torres Martinez Migrant and Farmworker Housing Village, a 330-space affordable mobile home park, community center, and swimming pool for permanent resident and migrant farmworker families. Combining both housing and economic development activities, this project also includes a property management training and employment component for its tribal members. During its first 10 years of operation, the park will be managed by the tribe's non-profit partner, LINC Housing. Once their tenure ends, they would have hired and trained Torres Martinez tribal members to take over the facility's operating responsibilities.

For this project, Torres Martinez successfully leveraged more than twice the amount of funds than what they received from HUD, amounting to an additional $1,450,000. They secured a $750,000 Community Development Block Grant from Riverside County and up to $700,000 in Community Facility Loan Funds from the United States Department of Agriculture, all to be used specifically for this project.

The tribe also serves the following 5 "Special Needs" communities as HUD has identified by implementing this project: (1) A very small population of 2,500 or less; (2) Migrant and seasonal farmworkers; (3) Native American Indians; (4) People living in colonias; and (5) A federally designated Empowerment Zone.


Torres Martinez, unlike the nearby tribes along Highway 10, is a non-gaming tribe. This means that they do not generate any income and have to rely heavily on federal funding to continue their existing programs. Unemployment and dropout levels are currently at about 60% for the tribe. They also experience high rates of diabetes, obesity, heart and respiratory problems, coupled with low life expectancy rates, with most of their tribal elders living only to their 50s and 60s. Tribal housing is very substandard, amounting to about 38 units, all of which are in severe disrepair and require major renovation or complete replacement.

The Coachella Valley, while supporting a $427 million agricultural industry, continues to face a drastic shortage of decent, affordable farmworker housing. In fact, the shortage is so severe that the state has obligated Riverside County to build 12,232 housing units in the unincorporated areas of the Valley by 2005. Presently, there are an estimated 400 non-permitted mobile home parks - most of which house farmworkers and their families - in Riverside County. Many if not all of these parks are undesignated colonias with little-to-no paved road infrastructure, unsafe electrical wiring, and unsanitary and inadequate water and wastewater facilities.

During peak harvest season, the unincorporated desert communities adjacent to the Valley's vast agricultural lands (Thermal, Mecca, and Oasis) attract hundreds of migrant farmworkers without a place to stay. Locally, it is commonly known that many of the town's permanent residents rent out their extra rooms, garages, trailers, parking areas, and even mattresses to groups of farmworkers needing a place to sleep, regardless of the overcrowded conditions these practices create. Many who cannot afford these options seek refuge amongst the local tamarisk trees and empty lots.

What Lies Ahead

The agricultural industry along with demand for agricultural labor is growing and will likely continue to grow in the Coachella Valley. Today there are 370 agriculture companies in the Valley, 100 more than in 1990. New agriculture activities include produce packing and processing, which require an increase in workforce skill levels. Jobs are becoming more year-round and less seasonal. At the end of 1999, there were 12,380 Coachella Valley residents employed in agriculture, a 7.5 percent increase from 1991.

The Coachella Valley's affluent areas are expanding without providing affordable housing. Neighboring the Valley's poor communities, the popular retiree and vacation destinations of Indian Wells and Palm Springs often forego the use of federal housing funds in order to avoid the accompanying mandate to build their share of affordable housing. At the same time, these areas are expanding their golf course and country club resorts which results in a growing need for lower paid service sector employees, most of whom cannot afford to live where they work. This reality forces them to compete for affordable housing with the area's poorer farmworker community, putting even more of a squeeze on affordable housing availability for the very poor in Riverside County.

In the near future, Torres Martinez intends to work toward building more eco-friendly housing for its tribal members, while continuing to pursue innovative partnerships and ventures to better serve the underserved in the Coachella Valley.

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