Thursday, December 13, 2012

The “Colonias” at the Mexico-Texas Border

Colonia in Cameron County, Texas

While working on an assignment near Brownsville, Texas, which was a proposed subdivision with no entitlements or development plan, it reminded me of a different type of illegal subdivision which has been a scourge in the Texas Rio Grande Valley.

The word “colonia” has an often undesirable connotation in Texas, unlike other areas of Latin America, where it generally refers to suburbs or other human settlements. In Texas it refers to illegal residential subdivisions lacking the basic utilities (water and sewage treatment) needed for human habitation. Residents also sometimes have to poach electricity from the closest power line, as often done in India. These colonias are some of the poorest communities in the U.S. (60% of households earn less than $1600 per month and average household size is 4.1) and are estimated to contain as many as 500,000 residents in Texas. A University of Texas study indicates their greatest prevalence in the border counties of Webb (Laredo) and Maverick (Eagle Pass) and the Central Texas counties of Travis (Austin) and Bastrop.

Photo from P.A. Lassiter

When one crosses north from Mexico to Texas, the landscape and culture have a less defined boundary than the border itself, as the Texas border is porous and the border fence has unguarded openings for vehicles (although vehicles can’t cross the Rio Grande at those points). Extended families sometimes live on both sides of the border and cross freely, and the vast majority of residents on the immediate Texas side of the border are ethnically Mexican.

Texas governments have traditionally had a laissez-faire (“anything goes”) attitude towards real estate development. There are no zoning laws governing land outside city limits, and even the city of Houston has no zoning code.

Some unscrupulous land developers have previously taken advantage of this laxity by subdividing rural land, building or allowing substandard housing on it, and failing to install water or sewers. This was done illegally, and per Texas Local Government Code section 232, all residential subdivisions must now be approved by county government and show that they have water and wastewater removal prior to development. Lack of zoning is not the same as having approval to build. The law allows almost any piece of rural land to be subdivided and developed, but the development has to meet local standards, which include water and sanitation.

Because these communities live outside the conventions of the modern American financial system, colonia residents cannot obtain mortgage financing for their land or homes. Instead, their home purchases are typically financed through “contracts for deed” issued by the original property owner as “pay-to-own” contracts, and are often informal and handwritten, charging interest rates as high as 20% per year. This leaves homeowners without proper title to their properties, not being recorded in official land registries, and burdens homeowners with tremendous risk that they cannot claim or sell their ownership rights.

In 1995, the Texas state government was becoming increasingly concerned about living conditions and exploitation of poor homeowners in colonias and enacted legislation to discourage “contract for deed” transactions and assure that all residents have water, sanitation, and electricity. This will prevent future colonias from being developed, but has not necessarily corrected existing colonias, as there has been no budget for enforcement.

Colonias may undergo similar life cycles to conventional neighborhoods, starting simple and uncrowded, than densifying to horrific proportions, and then finally being recognized and brought under the control of local authorities and even provided with modern infrastructure. The top 2 photos are colonias I saw in Cameron County, which has made progress in getting colonias under control. I searched in vain in Cameron County for a horrificly overcrowded colonia, so I turned to another blogger for the third photo, one of many on her own blog.
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