Researchers work with migrant farmworkers in West Michigan to navigate the intersections of marginalized communities and the housing crisis

August 1, 2023 - Emily Jodway

Deyanira Nevarez Martinez, an assistant professor in the Urban & Regional Planning Program in the School of Planning, Design and Construction, is working together with student Vivian Morales to research female migrant farmworkers navigating the housing market in Western Michigan. They recently received the Women’s Leadership Institute’s Tomlanovich-Dimond Research Exploration Fund, which will assist in field work they plan to conduct this summer. 

The WLI, housed within the College of Social Science, is a collaborative effort between the university, students, professional women and alumni, designed to advance leadership equity for women globally. When the researchers heard about the scholarship, they saw it as the perfect way to highlight the struggles of this marginalized group, as well as bring attention to a public health and labor issue in our own backyard. 

“I do a lot of research on informal housing in the United States, and I wanted to narrow in more to look at issues of race and ethnicity,” Nevarez Martinez explained. “I was really interested to see how the issues already existing were intersecting with our current housing affordability crisis.”

Nevarez Martinez herself grew up in a migrant camp in California, and is very familiar with the location and concentrations of farmworkers in Michigan. There are over 94,000 farmworkers and their dependents in Michigan, including more than 42,000 children. The western side of the state is home to many of these individuals, who migrated north from South Texas. What was once a stable market for these hired workers has become difficult to navigate as the traditional housing system for laborers has changed. 

“Farmers are moving to the use of more H2A workers, who are contracted and required to receive free housing,” Nevarez Martinez said. “They are all typically single men, and can be housed seven or eight to a unit, so farmers are opting to give their units to these folks rather than those with dependents. Now women workers and their families are having a lot harder time finding housing.”

With contracted workers being the priority for housing, families are seeking out informal housing arrangements such as garages or unpermitted apartments that may be cheaper living, but are harder to find in rural areas and often run-down and unsafe to occupy. Nevarez Martinez and Morales plan on traveling to West Michigan and interviewing some of the women who are currently struggling to find housing. They will also attend community events and public meetings, all in an effort to bring awareness to these issues and contribute suggestions to public policy change. 

“I’m really looking forward to having meaningful conversations and to get as much [information] as I can about their quality of life and what housing conditions look like today,” Morales said. “There might be other problems that come up, underlying issues we might not even know about that haven’t been researched yet, especially post-COVID.” 

Moralez and Nevarez Martinez feel an important connection to this research, both being Latina and first-generation college students. They each have memories of growing up and experiencing their family’s struggles to find affordable, livable housing in their communities. For Morales, having a mentor to look up to and help her through her college journey while also doing research that can have an impact on the communities that matter most to her is especially important. The pair are also breaking barriers in the world of urban planning. 

“We’re both in urban planning, a very white, male-dominated field, and we really saw this as an opportunity to grow for both of us, as scholars, and then also to create that mentor relationship that hopefully will be there for a long time, Nevarez Martinez said. “I really want Vivian to be as successful as possible and to be a support to her.”

“This is a really special opportunity for me, it’s just not something I thought would happen when I came to college,” Morales added. “I hope we can encourage other people to look into the issue and do more research on this, and that we can do our part to raise awareness when it comes to securing housing under livable conditions.”