Happy 4th of July! With today being American Independence Day, we thought it a good time to reflect on how the U.S. is adapting to (and resisting) migration, particularly along the border of Mexico, where new types of urbanism are evolving in order to accommodate escalating populations arriving from the south. Today, Bryan Finoki of Subtopia and Archinect offers us a provocative article on innovations in migrant housing design. Thanks, Bryan!

With so much focus on the US Government militarizing the US/Mexico border right now, it can be easy to miss the new types of migrant urbanism cropping up in the borderlands. For architects and designers, it’s a process that presents important questions, and great potential for innovation.

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How can architecture reconcile the transborder pressures of providing adequate housing with the inevitable tides of hyper-immigration? How can it help manage the increasing sprawl of the destitute colonias swelling between the two countries? And how can we bring new models of planning and infrastructure to areas of booming migrant settlement? How can design help to preserve the cultural identities of (im)migrants, or even help in some way to secure their political status here in the U.S.? Can design facilitate ties between immigrants and local municipalities, while preserving their connections to their homelands? Furthermore, how can future migrant structures suture the dismal and widespread labor-scapes of poor rural America?


From cheap hotels to border crossing choke points, smuggler tunnels to detention camps; from temporary labor shack housing to urban homeless shelters; squatter encampments to life in a vehicle, thousands of deprived families squat perpetually between various nodes of borderzone nomadism. Could a solution to farmworker housing help resolve other sectors of nomadic urbanism, like homelessness, or emergency housing for natural disaster refugees? How might our focus on migrant structures address these populations, as well?

For example, Public Architecture explores how the proliferation of informal day laborer shelters that are popping up in the urban core could be designed to help dignify and institutionalize this laborer spaces. But perhaps these structures could also be a bridge for with other communities who stand to benefit from similar projects, like bicyclists seeking bike shelters, or other labor activists looking for mobile stations in their own field deployment.


First, some quick economic context in order to better understand the farmworker housing issue and how it has played out in the evolutionand development of a dispersed borderzone culture in the United States: Current estimates place the number of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the U.S. today somewhere between 3 and 5 million. 61 percent of these people live in extreme poverty, with an average median income less than $7,500 annually, and a household income somewhere around $10,000, but not exceeding.

In general, employers don’t provide adequate housing, if any at all, and workers and their families are forced to seek shelter in multiple locations during the year, according to the Housing Assistance Council, “usually in small communities with very little rental housing available. Compounding the workers’ difficulty, low prevailing wage rates and limited days of employment have resulted in two-thirds of migrants living below the poverty line.”

The Rio Grande Valley in the south of Texas is the nation’s capital for farmworkers; 90% of the 1 million people there are Hispanic and approximately 1/3rd of those depend on employment in agriculture. The Migrant Legal Action Program places the housing options in two categories: “either on or off the farm.” On the farm, housing is provided, but employers impose stringent control, such as tall fences, “both to keep farmworkers in and to keep outsiders such as lawyers and health care providers out.” These facilities – labor camps, as they are called – are overcrowded and lack the most basic amenities – toilets, running water, and even electricity. On top of it all, this kind of shelter means a reduced paycheck.

The “off the farm” option usually means makeshift shelters constructed out of scrap material from nearby ditches, open fields, abandoned buildings and cars — places dislocated from basic infrastructure, and generally perceived as countryside slums. The MLAP suggested in 2004 “that [at the time] there [was] only enough adequate shelter for 425,000 of the nation’s 1.2 million farmworkers.” Or, about 35%.


Design Corps, a community-design based architectural outreach and planning organization, has worked in close collaboration with low-income populations since it was founded in 1999. One of their primary projects has been the Farmworker Housing Program, which has helped farmworkers devise their own affordable housing in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

In 2004, Laura Shipman, an advisory Board member of Design Corps, worked with farmworker advocate, Rob Williams, of Florida Legal Services, to design hurricane-resistant housing just after the storms ripped through Florida and devastated much of the already substandard farmworker housing there. The project dealt with specific concerns, like balancing shared housing and communal space (washrooms, TV rooms, recreational spaces, and other community plug-ins) with the need for private and family-friendly areas.

Housing located directly on the farms requires structural elevation and hurricane-resistant features like retractable window panels and back-up ground fastening functions, so ‘security’ and ‘openness’ can be equally central to the design. Most important perhaps, is that the end product can be a place which helps overturn the traditional perception that farmworkers only live in run-down shanties.


Design Corps has always treated its clients (often society’s most underserved people) as guides in the process through questionnaires, interviews and charettes; and by establishing a genuine and lasting relationship, which stimulates the community’s own design sensibility and input. Shipman’s project (pdf), while responding to the disasters of Florida’s post-hurricane landscape, is intended to be a model of community design for non-profits working with farmers and migrant workers all over.


Bryan Bell, the founder of Design Corps, who has been doing migrant housing for twelve years, was also featured in back in 2004, when he spoke about the process. Specific needs, “which may not be uniform amongst farms around the country,” are teased out in many ways. He says, for instance, “Instead of trying to rewrite migrant housing law, we just do strategic strikes. Like in South Carolina, one of the farmers had used bunk beds. Now, some 48-year-old farmworker shouldn’t have to climb up into a bunk bed. So we put in our lien, ‘No bunk beds.'” Bell proves that design and architecture can provide a bargaining chip for workers seeking to improve their conditions with farmers.


The primary goal has been for housing “that accommodates diverse cultures, counters the stigma associated with farmworker housing, and provides flexibility in configuration that allows for long-term use.” Design Corps’ website, also boldly states, that “while the manufactured housing industry has gained ground in middle- and upper-income markets, it is important that the industry continue to develop its original client base, low-income households, with better products and improved image.”


Another project that was recently shown at the Mobile Living Exhibit in NYC is the Resident Alien, by designer Andrew Dahlgren, a student at the University of Arts. Considering the fact that most migrant workers “find work by word of mouth,” says Dahlgren, and “travel in small groups, from farm to farm with little to no personal belongings,” an ideal solution would be a dynamic and configurable nomadic unit made from standard cargo containers. Dahlgren’s solution (pictured also at the beginning of the article) involves three modules (kitchen and eating, social space, and a bathroom) that could be installed into the containers, or in the beds of semi-truck trailers, and would allow the workers to travel and dock in designated areas around the farms to form their own community configurations tailored to specific conjoined needs.


The architecture becomes a poetic response to fact that migrant workers are “in a way ‘shipping’ their lives, belongings, and homes across the country.” And because the units “can be pulled by a truck or van and could be purchased by the workers themselves,” the Resident Alien gives workers a sense of ownership and control of their lives in a context which would otherwise treat them as nomadic serfs.

As spatial translations of global labor grind against an ironic nexus of free flow capital, how might an ideal migrant structure effect the global economy? What can farmworker housing achieve as a form of architectural negotiation with the fetid landscape of globalization’s open (and closed) borders? Can architecture help leverage migrant needs in the harsh marketplace of exploited global labor?


There are many other projects worth mentioning where migrant worker housing is resolved by the creation of affordable housing in general; a Google search pulls up some recent examples: Amistad Farm Laborers Housing, the Kingston House. Some are partially funded by the government’s assistance program, established solely for the purpose of developing farmworker housing, but those amount to a very small portion of what is actually needed.

And, of course, Teddy Cruz out of San Ysidro, California, has been mentioned on before, for doing some of the most important work in this context today, with implications for affordable housing well beyond the borderlands.

But what about all those workers who aren’t fortunate enough to find adequate rental housing or decent employer-provided accommodations? Hopefully, these projects can help suggest ways to alleviate struggles for millions who have come here to seek a better life for themselves. Perhaps, as simple as it may sound, part of the solution for everyone may very well begin with some thoughtful and decent farmworker housing.