By: Kathryn Lucerno, Community Environmental Management Specialist, Communities Unlimited (El Paso, Texas)
The term colonia is Spanish for neighborhood. More than 30 years ago, the first colonias were formed along the Texas/Mexico border by developers who began selling land to those wanting to achieve the American Dream. Dwellers were promised water, paved roads, electricity and even parks. Many families purchased land with a Contract for Deeds, paying inflated interest costs and putting themselves in danger of losing their property. Developers sold land without providing for basic needs and amenities, resulting in substandard housing developments, where residents lack basic services such as potable drinking water, lighting, sewage treatment, and paved roads. The State of Texas and federal agencies, as discussed later, have invested funds into a number of programs to remedy the conditions in existing colonias and to prevent new colonias from facing the same lack of basic public health and safety.
Colonias are usually unincorporated and are located outside city limits; they are often low-income communities and, as mentioned, do not have access to much of the basic infrastructure and services available in incorporated areas. While colonias also exist along the U.S.-Mexico Border in New Mexico, Arizona and California, Texas has the largest number of colonia residents: more than 500,000 people, most of whom are Hispanic or Latino.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 96 percent of colonia residents are Hispanic or Latino (mostly of Mexican-American descent), and the median age is 27. There is a common misconception that most colonia residents are recent or first-generation immigrants. In reality, almost two-thirds of adults (residents over the age of 18) are U.S. citizens, and 94 percent of youths living in colonias are U.S. citizens.
Within the past two decades, there has been a tremendous amount of work and success at the local, state, and federal level to improve the quality of life of colonia residents. These include strides in infrastructure, economic development and improved housing conditions. One of the objectives of many organizations working in colonia communities is to increase earnings and, ultimately, savings and investing, to break the cycle of poverty.
With the increased awareness of colonia and colonia-like conditions, federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development (USDA-RD) agency has significantly contributed to the improved quality of life in colonias. During the last 20 years, in El Paso County, Texas, alone, USDA has infused $62.8 million for first-time water and wastewater services in colonias. The RCAP Network has received USDA-RD technical assistance awards to help colonia communities specifically.
During the last full year of this program and through the first three quarters of this year’s, Communities Unlimited has leveraged $64.6 million in Texas infrastructure development awards, especially from USDA. Funding such as the USDA 306c program has allowed local authorities to target colonias and make improvements that otherwise they would be unable to focus on. The objective of the Section 306c individual grant program is to facilitate the use of community water and/or waste disposal systems by the residents of colonias along the U.S./Mexico border.
Thanks to the availability of funding, earmarked specifically for colonias, the development and proliferation of colonias without basic services has dramatically decreased. Additionally, state agencies such as the Texas Water Development Board and the Texas Department of Agriculture, have followed the lead of their federal partners and developed funding specifically for colonias along the Texas/Mexico Border.
With improved infrastructure came the need for improved housing. USDA-RD has also been active in assuring funds are available to those who have the most need through individual loans and grants, along with funding to housing non-profits such as the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville and Proyecto Azteca in the Rio Grande Valley, and Ayuda Inc. and Familias Truinfadoras in El Paso. In past years, Communities Unlimited’s predecessor agency worked with residents of the Las Lomas community in Starr County, Texas, with funding for housing improvement and septic tanks, and also managed a receivership that worked with Columbia Law Clinic students to resolve property ownership for a number of residents of one community. On a state level, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs has developed Self-Help Centers, which partner with these same housing non-profits, and provide resources for colonia residents. Colonia Self-Help Centers provide concentrated on-site technical assistance to low and very low-income individuals and families in a variety of ways including housing, community development activities, infrastructure improvements, outreach, and education. Key services include: housing rehabilitation, new construction, surveying and platting, construction skills training, tool access for self-help construction, housing finance, credit and debt counseling, grant writing, infrastructure construction and access, contract-for-deed conversions, and capital access for mortgages.
As a result of these programs, colonias have seen improved health and access to healthcare. The economic impact has been notable; with available basic infrastructure, many residents have opened small businesses as well as increased service and retail businesses within colonias. This allows for access to employment and begins a ripple effect for future generations. With an improved economy within colonias, these same businesses benefit from residents for whom they are now providing services.
It is imperative that funding for improving colonia quality of life continues to be accessible, and that RCAP, Communities Unlimited, and partners continue to target colonia improvements. We have made many strides, and with continued efforts to fill the remaining infrastructure gaps, we can secure a positive economic future across many generations.