Inside Casa de la Esperanza’s kitchen, a metal table overflows with “fixins”: bottles of chamoy, Tajín and squeezable butter; a drum of mayonnaise and a bag of cotija cheese; and a bowl of freshly boiled, yellow corn cobs. Kids, teenagers and adults alike carry their elotes through the hallways, holding them like oversized lollipops. The savory smell of the spices and butter collides with the sweetness of strawberry syrup bubbling atop the shared stove, destined for shaved ice. Everyone gathers round and takes part — the perks of a food-sharing program in action, and just one of the benefits for families living here.
When Casa de la Esperanza opened in 1993 in Longmont, Colorado, it represented an innovative solution to a problem that had long plagued agricultural communities across the West. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America formed the backbone of America’s agriculture industry (and today, still making up 73 percent of the nation’s agricultural workforce). But given the industry’s often-low wages, workers couldn’t afford rent in many areas near work. Casa de la Esperanza, which translates to House of Hope, opened in response — and quickly filled up.
Sixteen families live here now, and rent starts at $635 per month. To be eligible, families need to have at least three members, fall below a certain income threshold (families of four, for example, need to make less than $90,000), and the head of the household needs to be a documented agricultural worker. “It’s purposeful,” the center’s program coordinator, Vanessa Arritola, says. “You’re helping people.” And that’s a big deal at a time when decrepit housing situations endure for many low-income agricultural workers, from New York to Florida to California. And yet, today Casa de la Esperanza is only about half full.
Longmont’s agriculture industry is fading, too. It’s been chewed up — like most urban-adjacent farmland across the country — by suburban sprawl. And the nation’s agricultural workforce is changing, too. It’s smaller, older and more temporary than it once was, with seasonal workers increasingly filling the void of the industry’s constant labor challenges. Now, Casa de la Esperanza’s future is in question. Its fate, to some extent, mirrors the old ways of agriculture in the Mountain West.
“One of the bragging rights of agriculture is that it got more efficient. We need a little less labor to produce the same amount we were producing historically.”
Once one of the largest farming communities in Colorado, Longmont is now enveloped by suburban sprawl. Casa de la Esperanza straddles a very literal line of this force; sitting between a self-storage facility and a field. “As has happened in a lot of fast-growing urban areas, housing can always offer a better price point for land than farming,” says Dawn Thilmany, a professor of agricultural economics at Colorado State University. “So we’re gradually seeing more and more of that farmland transition into homes.”
Today, the town’s population stands at over 100,000. More people means more neighborhoods and shopping centers and parks. Urban sprawl has gobbled up rural land across the nation for decades, and among Colorado’s 64 counties, Longmont’s home of Boulder County ranks in the top 10 statewide for open land lost to sprawl between 1982 and 2017. But sprawl is only part of the story. Alongside the changing landscape is a changing workforce.
Back in 1950, the U.S. had nearly 10 million farm workers; today, it’s down to just over three million — even as yields trend upward. Boulder County produced $27.8 million worth of crops back in 1997; the most recent USDA data, from 2017, shows that number has swelled to $38.3 million. Even accounting for inflation, Boulder County’s crops are worth about as much now as they were nearly 30 years ago. So even with less land, crops have maintained their value. However, farming doesn’t require the same number of workers it once did.
“One of the bragging rights of (agriculture) is that it got more efficient,” Thilmany says. “We need a little less labor to produce the same amount we were producing historically.” People were replaced with robotic harvesting, self-driving tractors and “automated farming,” which uses a combination of drones, computers and automatic watering and seeding devices. People got replaced — and the people who do remain are increasingly transient.
The H-2A visa program allows foreign workers to reside in the U.S. temporarily for seasonal jobs, largely in agriculture. “There’s a very prescribed amount of weeks that they’re allowed to work (in a particular place), and then they move to their next job in another state,” Thilmany says. “Those people would never want to sign leases with or live in a housing situation like (Casa de la Esperanza) because they know they’re going to be leaving.” The H-2A visa program has grown exponentially over the last decade, with fewer than 100,000 visas issued in 2013 compared to 300,000 last year.
Boulder County itself doesn’t have many registered H-2A visa holders, according to the most recent data from the American Immigration Council, but neighboring Adams and Weld counties rank second and third in the state, respectively. Many of the agriculture jobs adjacent to Longmont are going to workers who will only be there for a short time, and therefore wouldn’t have interest in a long-term lease in affordable housing programs. It’s not often that in a time of housing crisis and extreme inflation that affordable housing would be at risk simply because tenants are too hard to come by, but that’s the case for Casa de la Esperanza.
“The working poor are just falling right out of the safety net. There is no safety net.”
Rooms stand empty. Fewer children run through the halls. Maybe, Arritola has begun to think, the program needs to change with the times.
Thanks to $350,000 of recently acquired funding via the American Rescue Plan, the county plans to move away from traditional USDA loans to open Casa de la Esperanza up to all low-income applicants, not just agricultural workers. Which, Arritola admits, would be strange at first. The agricultural adjacency of the people who live here has helped bond the community and informed its culture. Nevertheless, “I want to see the units filled,” she says. “There’s such a huge housing need. And if that’s the last resort, then I’m all for it. … It’ll change a little bit of that dynamic, but we’re OK.” And maybe it doesn’t even need to change the dynamic all that much.
Per the most recent census data, about a quarter of Longmont’s population is Hispanic or Latino. As of 2020, about 11 percent of residents are also foreign-born, but that number has been dropping. Back in 2015, around 10 percent of residents were not born in the U.S., mirroring the average for communities across the United States. Longmont’s foreign population still ranks several percentage points higher than Colorado’s average, and it also beats out neighboring communities like Boulder and Greeley. That sizable population and its first-generation children may not be as keen on working in agriculture anymore, but they often still work low-income jobs, says Donna Lovato, executive director of a Longmont-based immigrant advocacy group called El Comité. Jobs in hotels and landscaping and restaurants, for example. And Longmont has become too expensive for many of them. “The working poor are just falling right out of the safety net. There is no safety net for them,” she says. “Incomes are not matching what people need to sustain themselves and have a livable wage.”
Lovato was already working in Longmont’s immigrant community 30 years ago, when Casa de la Esperanza was founded. But over time, she says, she’s seen the trends reflected in the statistics: the sprawl; the reduction of farming jobs; the new visa programs. And, more recently, the extreme housing cost increases that have afflicted many mountain towns across the West. “People used to come to Longmont from Boulder,” she says. “Now they’re leaving Longmont, too.” Casa de la Esperanza, she believes, is well situated to address this issue. “I have heard they want to change it,” she says, “and if they focus on first-generation, low-income immigrants, I think that would be perfect.”
Before that happens, though, the program must make a final effort to bring in agricultural workers. Over the summer, local newspapers published stories about the vacancies. Boulder County also issued a press release, advertising the openings at Casa de la Esperanza. Places like Casa de la Esperanza exist because communities and their leaders have decided that certain jobs are so essential that they must be subsidized. When it was founded, it made sense to continue subsidizing the local agriculture industry. But even as far back as the 1970s, Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture told farmers to “get big or get out.” Headlines, politicians and studies have lamented the downfall of the small American family farm while bigger players continue to increase profit and product. Indeed, America’s agriculture industry writ large is humming right along, but if you define the industry by the way it used to be — with regional producers and local economies — you’d think that it’s now nonexistent. Instead, it’s simply moved on. Places like Longmont and Casa de la Esperanza will need to decide if it’s time to move on, too.