Texas's colonias: solution to housing crisis or moral blot on rich nation’s conscience?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Vehicles and trailers sit in the front yard of a home in Pueblo de Palmas, a ‘model subdivision’ meant to offer a better housing alternative than 'colonias,' near Penitas, Texas.

Manuela Sandiland lives near the end of a street appropriately named Friendly Drive. Residents greet each other warmly on morning walks past houses with American flags fluttering in the front yard. Neighbors look in on each other when someone doesn’t feel well. They fawn over each other’s pets – including an effervescent Chihuahua mix named Tiffany. 

Ms. Sandiland, who lost her husband, a US Army veteran who served in the Korean War, 10 years ago, is surrounded by family. Her two sons live on either side of her. In the afternoons, she likes to meet her grandchildren as they get off the school bus and walk home. The community, she says, is “nice and quiet.”

Yet the enclave six miles outside Edinburg, Texas, is hardly a plush American suburb. The street in front of her home isn’t paved. There’s no drainage system. No streetlights. Most residents live in rusted trailers without heat, air conditioning, or internet services. Inside Sandiland’s trailer, the howling wind on this day is audible through the walls and her cheeks are pink from the cold. She is awakened some mornings by roosters crowing as they strut through her front yard.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Manuela Sandiland walks one of her grandchildren down a dirt road in their colonia after he arrives home from school in Alamo, Texas. She has lived here for 46 years. Her sons and their families live next to her.

Friendly Drive isn’t in an official town, or even a village. It’s in a colonia – an informal community of poor people, most of them immigrants, most of them legal, who live in basic houses and substandard conditions, often on the edge of prosperous cities. Across the Southwest, more than 2,000 of these colonias now exist along the US-Mexican border, the majority in Texas. The largest concentration – more than 900 – is in Hidalgo County near the southern tip of the state. 

To social justice advocates, the enduring presence of colonias symbolizes the growing gap between rich and poor, urban and rural in the United States. They see them as an institutionalized form of poverty – an unacceptable form of near-third-world living that has become too accepted in one of the richest countries in the world. 

Yet there have been improvements in colonias, too. Many now have electricity and running water, which most didn’t as recently as 15 years ago. High rates of disease once prevalent in the communities have diminished dramatically.

Moreover, many residents like Sandiland, though unhappy about dirt roads and long drives to doctors’ offices, are content having places, however humble, to call their own.

One reason for the improvements is the residents themselves. In laissez-faire Texas, where housing regulations are minimal, many residents have been able to get into homes they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford and make improvements at their own pace – room by room, paycheck by paycheck.

This is partly why, experts say, colonias have become a defacto solution to the nation's affordable housing crisis in Texas -- with 500,000 Texans choosing to live in them despite all the deficiencies.  All of which raises fundamental questions: Is the very presence of colonias a moral blot on a rich nation’s conscience? Or are they a defacto affordable housing solution that should be more formalized and regulated? If so, can they be improved in a way that doesn’t abandon their poorest residents – people like Manuela Sandiland?

In the Rio Grande Valley, informal settlements first began springing up in the early 1900s as the area became a produce rack for the nation. Fields of lettuce, cabbage, onions, and other “row crops” dimpled the landscape alongside cotton fields and citrus orchards. Local Latinos and Mexican migrants worked the fecund plots and lived in small villages near the river, helping to turn the region into one of the highest-producing agricultural areas in the country.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A 'beware of the dog' sign hangs on a cyclone fence surrounding a home in Pueblo de Palmas colonia in Penitas, Texas.

Ironically, these settlements didn’t really boom in number until the agriculture industry later declined. Farmers began to sell their worst, often flood-prone, land to real estate developers who then divided it into lots for sale. The buyers, typically low-
income farmworkers and immigrants, would build their homes slowly over time. Since the land was usually in unincorporated areas of a county, unscrupulous developers would rent or sell lots with promises, such as to install running water and electricity, or to hand over the title after a certain number of payments, and then never follow through.

“There were waterborne diseases ... you had a lot of people basically starving, a lot of malnutrition,” says Alex Moreno, who in the late 1960s helped form the first advocacy group for colonias, which they were then starting to be called, in Hidalgo County. “It was a terrible, terrible situation.”

Colonias gained national notoriety for representing third-world conditions in the US, and in the 1980s federal and state governments responded. They passed new regulations on rural development and allocated more than $1 billion in infrastructure improvements. 

Today, most homes in colonias have electricity and running water, and new rural subdivisions are required to have these services. In 2014, the Texas secretary of state concluded that, of the roughly 1,800 colonias across the state, 922 were considered “green” – meaning they had access to potable water, adequate drainage, wastewater and solid waste disposal, and paved roads – an increase from 636 in 2006. Meanwhile the number of “yellow” colonias – those just with access to potable water and wastewater disposal – increased from 396 in 2006 to 555 in 2014. The number of “red” colonias, which have no basic infrastructure, dropped from 442 in 2006 to 337 in 2014.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Maria Jesus Infante poses in the living room of her home in a colonia, called Charro 2, near Alamo, Texas. She has lived in the informal community since 1980, raising eight children here.

Maria Jesus Infante has seen the changes. She has lived in a colonia called Charro 2 since 1981. When her family first moved in, they built their house from scratch. That included what they used for a bathroom – a wooden outhouse. Every time there was a heavy rain, the muddy street in front of her house would flood and it would take as long as a month for the waters to recede. 

Now the street is paved, and last year the county dug some drainage ditches. The house is modest in size, with a kitchen, small dining room, and living room. It has a rooster-red paint job on the outside. 

“Now it’s much better,” says Ms. Infante.

While advocates such as Mr. Moreno agree that conditions in the settlements have improved, they consider this only a modest victory: They note that the problems for people living in the colonias have now just come up to the level of those of other poor people in the state.

The median household income in Texas colonias is less than $30,000 – well below both the state ($56,500) and national levels ($57,600). Of the 500,000 people who reside in them, 40 percent live below the poverty line and another 20 percent are at or near the poverty line, according to a 2015 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Meanwhile, 55 percent of colonia residents have less than a high school diploma and less than 6 percent have a college degree or higher. Seventy-three percent are US citizens.

Josué Ramirez grew up in a colonia in neighboring Cameron County. He remembers having to drive 15 minutes to get anywhere, and walking through the dark to catch the school bus because there were no streetlights. He didn’t think much of it at the time. It was just home to him, until he went to college and learned about colonias in a Latino policy class.

“I was just amazed at the history of how they came to be, and the conditions in comparison to the rest of the state and the nation,” says Mr. Ramirez, who is now the Lower Rio Grande Valley co-director for the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, a nonprofit that supports expanding affordable housing.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
‘I was just amazed at the history of how [colonias] came to be, and the conditions in comparison to the rest of the state and the nation.' – Josué Ramirez, Texas Low Income Housing Information Service

“There have been improvements in colonias,” he continues, “but in comparison to the rest of the country, you still see a discrepancy.”

As a teacher for three years in Starr County, on the Texas-Mexican border, Noah Durst taught many students from colonias. He has since spent years studying the communities in Texas, and believes the state has been using colonias and other kinds of “self-help” housing “as a bit of a release valve for the affordable housing challenges that cities face.”

Now an assistant professor in the School of Planning, Design and Construction at Michigan State University in East Lansing, he notes there are positive things about colonias. Homeownership rates for the poor and minorities, for one thing, are much higher in these kinds of informal subdivisions around the country.

“That’s a great thing,” he says. “The inherent advantage of self-help housing is it provides homeownership opportunities to people normally locked out of that market.”

“If a state like Texas made it impossible for these communities to develop in the first place, many of the families would have nowhere else to go,” he adds. “We should at least take steps to make sure it’s done more safely.”

Sandiland’s home on Friendly Drive is typical of many in the colonias. It has no heat. On a chilly morning she is sitting on a sofa wrapped in layers of clothing with a pillow on her lap. Her trailer is riddled with holes, which rats and occasionally snakes take advantage of to sneak into her house. 

“I’m accustomed to it,” she says matter-of-factly. She does have electricity and running water, though. 

Her main issue is with the street – a muddy, potholed artery that floods occasionally and is unlit at night. She has been working with local advocates to get funding for streetlights and other improvements, but so far with little success.

The dark streets contribute to petty crime and raise concerns about children getting hit by cars. Sandiland walks her grandchildren to the school bus in the dark. Irene Yracheta, a neighbor a few lots down, says clothes have been stolen off her clothesline.

Yet there has been some progress on lighting. Two years ago, the grass-roots group La Uníon del Pueblo Entero pressured state officials into approving a pilot program to install streetlights in colonias. The program depends on residents being willing to pay, however – in this case an additional $30 a month on their electric bill – and thus the initiative has spread slowly.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
People living near the Mexican border celebrate Martin Luther King Day with a grass-roots community gathering and commemorative march for civil rights in McAllen, Texas. The area has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.

House fires are a problem in colonias, too, particularly in the winter, when many residents use space heaters. On a cold day last December, a mother and two of her children died in what investigators believe was an electrical fire at the woman’s home in a rural corner of Hidalgo County.

Part of the problem in limiting such catastrophes is a lack of regulation. In Texas, counties have less tax revenue and less regulatory control than cities. Cities have funds for sewer and garbage collection. They have building and electrical codes they can enforce. 

Residents who live in these unincorporated areas, which fall under the jurisdiction of counties, often can’t afford to hire a professional to do something like wiring. Thus they do the work themselves. And, if something does go wrong, emergency services are often at least 30 minutes away.

“I worked in city government for a long time, and when I came to county government I thought, ‘Well, the county is just a bigger level,’ ” says Joseph Palacios, a Hidalgo County commissioner. “Well, no. We have a bigger area, but the resources are a lot more limited. That poses a big challenge.”

To address the response problem, the county has built an emergency services facility on the edge of the Edinburg city limits so fire and police can respond faster to calls from unincorporated areas. They’re building a second one now near San Carlos, where the December fire happened.

But that is still only two facilities to cover roughly 100,000 people in rural areas spread across two-thirds of Hidalgo County.

Yet even if counties had more regulatory muscle, not everyone thinks they should flex it. Moreno, for one, worries about the cost to residents of imposing new sewer strictures and electrical codes.

“There are a lot of fires in [colonias], and that’s an area that needs to be changed,” he says. “But if you change it ... housing is going to become more expensive.”

“I worry about overdoing the regulations in a hurry,” he adds. “If you move too fast you can lose a lot of people. You’ll make a lot of people homeless.”

Humble housing and a lack of basic amenities aren’t just limited to colonias. They’re also a problem in places such as Pueblo de Palmas.

This sprawling neighborhood about 20 miles west of Edinburg is what the state considers a “model subdivision.” It opened a few years after lawmakers in Austin imposed colonia prevention regulations that were intended to halt the spread of the informal settlements and create more habitable alternatives to them. 

The very name, Pueblo de Palmas, sounds as if it could grace a high-end real estate brochure. The community does have electricity, water connections, and wide paved roads. But what is built along its roadways – trailers and shacks interspersed with small houses in varying states of completion – is more reminiscent of a colonia than the “model subdivision” state law says it’s supposed to be.

“If we look at housing conditions, they are far more dire in these newer model subdivisions” than in older colonias, says Mr. Durst. “The houses are smaller, and the prevalence of mobile homes is far higher.”

The colonia prevention regulations – better known as model subdivision rules – have been modified as recently as 2009 but haven’t seen any major changes to their requirements since the 1990s.

Some advocates would like to see more state money put into improving colonias and model subdivisions, but that may be difficult to do. In a state as large, diverse, and small-government-minded as Texas, securing public funds for what is largely a border housing issue, affecting only a handful of counties, can be problematic.

Last summer Republican Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed nearly $860,000 in state funding sought by the Texas secretary of state for a colonia initiative. The program places ombudsmen in counties with large numbers of colonias to assess residents’ needs. They advocate for improvements and work with other officials to secure funding for water and other infrastructure projects. At the time, the governor said all this assistance could be handled by existing state agencies.

“The state of Texas is our greatest obstacle [to improving colonias],” says Democratic state Rep. Terry Canales. Leaning back in a leather chair in his law office in Edinburg, Mr. Canales says that in his six years in Austin “there have been more obstacles than victories. The problem that we’ve got is the current political climate doesn’t seem to lend itself to helping poor people, and that’s just the bottom line.”

The residents of these settlements and subdivisions, meanwhile, continue to carve out their own lives. Libby Reyes was one of the first people to move to Pueblo de Palmas. She came from Rio Grande City 18 years ago because her daughter was going to attend the University of Texas-Pan-
American nearby, and she remembers being told that there would be “only big houses” in the subdivision.

“We got the lot here and we [built] the house, and then they started moving [in] small trailers, small houses, and everything,” she says. With a slight smile, she adds: “But I’m still here.”

Ms. Reyes runs a thrift store in a community center that also offers classes to residents ranging from English as a second language to Zumba. “The people we know who come here are nice people,” she says.

But she does have complaints. Pueblo de Palmas, like many of the colonias, doesn’t have streetlights, and she often sees petty vandalism – graffiti in the park across the street and smashed mailboxes. When she calls the police, it takes them as long as an hour to arrive.

Farther into the subdivision, Juan Lopez, a landscaper, is struggling to fix his truck. He’s replaced the brake pads on three of the wheels, but a frozen lug nut on the fourth one is proving difficult to remove. He’s lived in Hidalgo County for five years, including in the cities of McAllen and Mission, but he likes Pueblo de Palmas because he’s on track to own the lot. He’s been living here in a trailer for a year. He has no air conditioning or heat. 

But he finds the neighborhood friendly. With an oil-stained hand, he points out the “many Christian people” on the street. “The neighborhood is very good. There is no problem with anyone,” he says in Spanish, although “there is a lot of extreme poverty.”

After decades of being criticized nationwide for having thousands of residents living in third-world conditions, housing and infrastructure in colonias have improved considerably since the early 1990s. But, according to Durst, the colonias expert at Michigan State, over that same time period more than 500 model subdivisions have formed in Hidalgo County alone – at a pace of more than 1,000 lots per year – and housing conditions in these communities are markedly worse than in colonias, since many of the families there are just beginning the decades-long process of self-help.

 All of which leads Durst to argue that “the nation’s affordable housing strategy is largely not to have one, and that leaves the responsibility for finding access to safe and affordable housing up to the residents themselves.” 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the viewpoints of Noah Durst, the assistant professor at Michigan State University.

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