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Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs - Building Homes and Strengthening Communities

Background on the Colonias

In today's world, Texas Colonias are considered an observable fact. Their beginnings date back to the 1950's. As a response to the reconstruction era, Texans adopted a state constitution to minimize the powers of government. By making counties subdivisions of the state with no home rule powers, Texans guaranteed that no county could take an action or adopt a rule until it is first voted on by the state. Thus, in Texas, all regulatory powers originate with cities and the state. Areas outside city limits are "regulation free zones" until problems become so serious that the entire state is ready to empower a county to deal with them 1.

These regulatory free zones enabled colonia developers to purchase or own tracts of land with a marginal agricultural value. Some of these tracts were flood prone and drained poorly; some were too hilly to irrigate; some were land with a declining value due to changes in agricultural economics. These developers platted their tracts, bulldozed roads, and sold the undeveloped lots on 10 to 20 year contracts for deed starting anywhere between $8,000 to $20,000 at an interest rate of 10% to 17% annually 2. A contract for deed is an instrument used to sell land. Title to the property is not transferred until the balance is paid in full.

What is a Colonia?

A "Colonia," Spanish for neighborhood or community, is a geographic area located within 150 miles of the Texas-Mexico border that has a majority population composed of individuals and families of low and very low income. These families lack safe, sanitary and sound housing and are without basic services such as potable water, adequate sewage systems, drainage, utilities, and paved roads. With living conditions often compared to Third World countries, the colonias present one of the most critical housing needs in the State. Housing in the colonias is primarily constructed with scarce materials. Professional builders are rarely used. Residents frequently start with makeshift structures of wood, cardboard or other materials, and as finances allow they continue to improve their homes.

Resident Profile

Colonia residents tend to be young, predominately Hispanic, low to very low income, and employed in low paying sectors. According to the 1990 Census, 36.6 percent of colonia residents are children (compared to 29 percent statewide). Nearly all are Hispanic and 27.4 percent speak Spanish as their primary language. However, contrary to common perception, more than 75 percent of colonia residents were born in the U.S. and 85 percent are U.S. citizens.

The workforce tends to be young and unskilled; consequently, wages are low. Family incomes in the counties along the border tend to be much lower than the state average of $16,717: Starr County $5,559; Maverick County $7,631; and Hidalgo County $8,899 3. Primary occupations are seasonal in nature; agriculture service providers and construction-related jobs account for more than 50 percent of the workforce 4. A 1993 study by the Texas A&M Center for Housing and Urban Development indicated that unemployment levels in five Rio Grande Valley colonias ranged from 20 percent to as high as 70 percent, compared with the overall state unemployment rate of only seven percent.

According to a random survey in June 2000 by the Texas Department of Health, 96 colonias in six border counties (Cameron, El Paso, Hidalgo, Maverick, Val Verde and Webb), almost half of the colonia households make less than $834 a month. Nearly 70 percent of the residents never graduated from high school 5.

As indicated in a February 1999 Status Report of the Center for Housing and Urban Development College of Architecture - Texas A&M University, there are approximately 1,450 colonias in the State of Texas, which are home to over 350,000 Texans. Future projections indicate the population may reach as high as 700,000 residents by the year 2010 6.

Living Conditions

As previously noted, the lack of even the most basic infrastructure (potable water and adequate sewage systems) has contributed to the proliferation of disease. Compounded with a lack of adequate medical insurance and a shortage of healthcare facilities, reported cases of viral disease in the colonias far exceed statewide levels.

According to a 1991 study by the University of Texas System Texas-Mexico Border Health Coordination Office, diseases such as Hepatitis A, Salmonellosis, Shigellosis, and Tuberculosis occurred at a much higher rate in the colonias than the rest of the state 7. The rate of reported Hepatitis A, for example, was more than double the statewide rate. Other health problems included high rates of gastroenteritis and other water-quality related problems 8. Lack of medical services is rarely available and compounds health problems in the colonias. Due to these stumbling blocks, for children, it results in slower growth and lower educational development rates.

In addition to a lack of adequate wastewater infrastructure, most roadways located in colonias are unpaved or continue to be of very poor quality. A survey of residents of the El Cenizo colonia conducted by TDHCA in late 1996 indicated that 50 percent of the roads within the colonia were classified as "deteriorated" or "poor." 9 Many times, water from heavy rains tends to collect, and when combined with inadequate waste removal systems it forms into pools of raw sewage, which again causes health problems for colonia residents.

The inability to access potable water is another hardship confronting colonia residents daily. According to the 1990 Census, the use of untreated water for drinking, washing, bathing and cooking ranged from four percent to 13 percent of colonia households 10. Many residents rely on large plastic drums for the storage of water. More often, water is transferred to the house by bucket or plastic container. Reports of water used for bathing, washing and even cooking drawn from ditches where sewage and agricultural chemicals gather is not uncommon.

Plumbing facilities are also a problem in the colonias. Approximately 50 percent of houses in rural colonias and 20 percent in urban colonias have incomplete plumbing facilities, while 40 percent in rural colonias and 15 percent in urban colonias lack a complete kitchen.

While each colonia is different and may have needs unique to that area, most share the same general characteristics. Unfortunately, these and other concerns are all part of the day-to-day life for most colonia residents 365 days a year. A bad situation is made even worse due to a profound lack of the most basic of necessities; safe, sanitary and decent housing.

Footnotes

  1. Texas Colonia, An Environmental Justice Case Study-1998, by Madeline Pepin, Ph.D.
  2. Texas Colonia, An Environmental Justice Case Study-1998, by Madeline Pepin, Ph.D.
  3. Texas Colonias: A Thumbnail Sketch of Conditions, Issues, Challenges, and Opportunities , Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, 1996.
  4. Baseline Conditions in the lower Rio Grande Valley , Texas A&M Center for Housing and Urban Development, 1993.
  5. The Border Economy, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas June 2001
  6. LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, January 1996; and Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.
  7. University of Texas System Texas-Mexico Border Health Coordination Office, University of Texas-Pan American.
  8. Third World Colonias: Lower Rio Grande Valley, Holz and Davies, UT School of Public Affairs, 1993.
  9. A Study of the People of El Cenizo, Texas , Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, Office of Colonia Initiatives, April 1997.
  10. U.S. Census, Texas Department of Human Services, 1990