Kelowna council grapples with temporary farmworker housing issue

Council says the issue needs to be addressed by the Ministry of Agriculture, not city hall.

Apples on tree

Kelowna city council is getting fed up having to deal with the issue of permanent housing on farm land in Kelowna for temporary farm workers.

That’s because it has no jurisdiction over the issue and must defer to the province’s Agricultural Land Commission. And the ALC has said permanent farmworker housing is not allowed on land in the Agricultural Land Reserve.

But that has not stopped farmers from going to city hall seeking support from council for bids to build what one councillor described Monday as permanent “hotels” on farmland to house temporary workers.

“Even if we were to approve this, chances are the ALC is going to say no because they don’t like permanent structures on agricultural land,” said Mayor Colin Basran.

The latest bid is a by a south-east Kelowna farmer who also leases a large amount of farm land elsewhere in the area as well.

He needs to bring in temporary workers for his farming operations and wants to build a permanent, two-storey building on his 13-acre south-east Kelowna farm for them to live in while here.

The workers, needed between March and November each year, would live in the building, slated for 40 workers.

But as it has done in the past with other, similar applications, city staff did not support the bid and left it to council to decide. Council also refused to support the application to the ALC.

Agreeing with his council that issue of housing for temporary farmworkers is a larger one that needs to be addressed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Basran said a meeting would be sought with the minister, Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick to discuss the problem.

While council refused to support the bid for the permanent housing, it says it is sympathetic to the needs of farmers who have to house the temporary workers they need each year.

“Times are changing and we need to change with it,” said Coun. Charlie Hodge addressing the issue of the ALC refusing to allow anything but temporary housing on farmland for temporary farm workers.

One option suggested by city staff is that mobile buildings be moved onto the property to house the workers each season. But with so many spaces needed, it is not only not feasible for the farmer, council, as it has shown in the past, is hesitant to allow the creation of “worker villages” popping up farms in Kelowna.

Former B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association president Kirpal Boparai, who spoke on behalf of the farmer, warned council it will likely get more requests for temporary farmworker housing in future because the demand is there.

Basran said ideally, he would like to see housing for temporary farmworkers in areas where they are close to amenities and services, but added that would likely not possible.

But he said, he is concerned about proposals to simply renovate “picker’s shacks” that have not been used in 20 years as an answer.

“These people need proper housing,” said the mayor.