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Palm Beach County farmworker housing issues investigated

Posted at 5:20 PM, Jul 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-30 22:28:12-04

BELLE GLADE, Fla.-- Next to acres of undeveloped farmland, WPTV followed a caravan of federal, state and local leaders to Bedner Farms in Belle Glade Tuesday.

The group toured a privately funded complex on Bender Farms’ property, which will open in August and can house 388 H2A visa workers for months at a time.

“To try to get a better understanding of what’s happening here and how we can collaboratively, all three levels of government, can work to solve the farmworker housing issues and crisis that we have,” said Phil Leary, Florida’s state director for USDA rural development.

“This is the epitome of what farm worker housing should look like,” said Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who was part of the tour.

McKinlay has been fighting to improve conditions in the Glades. In particular, she recently raised concerns about the Okeechobee Center, another public housing complex, after learning a family was living in a rat and mold-infested home. McKinlay says children were bitten by rats at night, and a one-year-old needed surgery after having an infestation of cockroaches in his ear.

“Everybody is jumping to the table to be able to fix this situation, and I’m very pleased about that,” McKinlay said.

U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott also sent a letter to the USDA secretary calling the conditions unacceptable, and asked for an investigation.

Leary says he met with the Belle Glade Housing Authority Monday, which runs the Okeechobee Center. Leary issued a number of recommendations including replacing rooftops and improving elevation.

“We outlined some things we would like them to do specifically, both verbally and in writing,” Leary said. “There are a number of structures throughout the Glades area that are 40 to 50-years-old, and they need to be demolished.”

The USDA has given the Belle Glade Housing Authority 15 days to respond to their recommendations, and to also come back with a plan to improve living conditions.

“The county health department will be doing joint inspections with the housing authority for each of those units, which will be tremendous,” Leary added.

“I’m happy the USDA stepped up to investigate and figure out how they can work with us to make it better, so it’s just very important we keep bringing it to light because the conditions out here are just in need of help,” said FL Rep. Tina Polsky, representing the state’s 81st House district.

Before the tour, the group also met for a roundtable discussion to talk about ways to address the critical shortage of farm worker and affordable housing.