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June 22, 2021

Santa Maria City Council Repeals H-2A Housing Ordinance

The Santa Maria City Council voted last week to repeal a controversial H-2A ordinance rather than face a $400,000 penalty and potential litigation with the federal government.

In June 2019, following 15 months of public debate and comment, the Santa Maria City Council adopted an ordinance regulating H-2A employee housing in residential zoned districts (R-1, R-2, and R-3 zones). The ordinance required agricultural employers to obtain discretionary permits to house temporary and seasonal H-2A workers in homes zoned for single-family. The ordinance was adopted in response to residents’ concerns over the increasing number of foreign guest workers being housed in residential areas of Santa Maria.

In response HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity initiated an investigation into the city’s ordinance in May of last year. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) notified city officials last May that the ordinance was found to specifically regulate H-2A employers. The Office then followed up with a complaint last August alleging that H-2A employees fall into a protected class based on national origin and thus cannot be specifically regulated by local governments.

HUD issued the city a voluntary compliance agreement stating the remedies the Office would seek, including the $400,000 fine and the threat of legal action.  To avoid the fine, the City had to agree to repeal the ordinance and require each council member to participate in sensitivity training.

The City Council split 3-2 in agreeing to repeal the ordinance rather than incur the steep penalty and a costly legal defense.