Special Report: RGV Residents Living in Communities Without Basic Provisions

Posted: Updated: Nov 10, 2016 04:28 PM

WESLACO – Families search for better lives along the Rio Grande. They’re looking for stable jobs and a safe place to live. Most of them end up in colonias.

A colonia is a neighborhood, a community. Many are located along the Texas-Mexico border and some are near established residential areas.

Generally, colonias are places without water, drainage, lighting or sewer systems or some combination.

It usually takes time, money and patience for someone to claim a piece of land.

“We’ve been here approximately 50 years. We started building about 10 years ago,” Nereyda Hernandez said. 

Hernandez lives in a Hidalgo County colonia. She wants to expand her home to have space for her two teenage boys. “Before my home, we had a trailer. So we built little by little and finally we have our home,” she said.

Hernandez said her family chose to live in the colonia. They knew they could save money by living there. She even designed her home.

“There was no pressure having a payment of a home. If we didn’t have money, we would just stop the building and we’ve done it like that since, and we’ve gotten our way anyways. It’s been good but because we don’t have a mortgage, that’s the payoff about it,” she said.

Eventually, Hernandez wants to sell her home. She’s concerned that will not happen. The same pride of ownership isn’t expressed in the rest of the colonia.

“Whatever is around us it’s going to harm us at the time we want to sell. Because people are building junk yards or their trailer mechanic shops and this is not a place for a business,” she noted.

The Texas Secretary of State’s Office said they are unaware of existing building regulations for colonias.

“They don’t have building codes they can go out there and enforce that. The county, from I’m aware of, is that they can only enforce under the authority that they are given through the county, through the state, through the law the state passes. So they don’t have that type of power at the current moment,” Colonia Initiatives Program Director Enriqueta Caballero said.

Caballero pointed to the state’s definition of a colonia. It is a place that lacks basic living services such as lights, water, drainage and sewer.

The definition is different for other agencies.

“I would say there are at least five because you have, that I can think of right off the bat, five agencies that deal type of colonia programs, type of colonia funding,” Caballero said.

The Hidalgo County Secretary of State Ombudsman Oliver De La Garza shared what they define as a colonia.

“There is a lack of infrastructure. They have septic tanks and it is a flood area that floods heavily during rain events,” De La Garza said.

In an area near Hernandez’s home appears like it’s a colonia, but it is not.

“It doesn’t have an M number. In our reports, we don’t consider it a colonia, with other agencies’ definition it may be considered a colonia. In the state of Texas, Secretary of State it doesn’t have an M number. It was developed recently in the last four years,” he said.

De La Garza said the infrastructure may be different.  The homes may look the same.

“We’re starting to focus on areas that are not only infrastructure, now we have to think about other things, education, economic development, housing. Now water and waste is not our main concern. It’s still an issue but there’s no dire need in Hidalgo County,” he said.

De La Garza pointed to an “M” number. It’s given to all the colonias registered in the state AG’s office. If a county or city wants a colonia to be designated by the state, city or county leaders must put in a request. That designation means money from the state can go to a city or county and will be used to make life better in the colonias.

The state classifies colonias by color – red, yellow and green.

  

A green colonia status means people have all the basic living requirements. A yellow status means half of the community may have water and half of it maybe hauling it in or they may be in a flood zone.

The red status means they lack safe drinking water, sewer and not platted. It could be one issue or all three.

According to a 2014 tracking progress report from the Secretary of State, there are more than 1,000 colonias in the Rio Grande Valley.

In Willacy County there are 16 colonias.

In Cameron County there are 196 colonias.

In Starr County there are 256 colonias

In Hidalgo County there 937 colonias.

Source: 84th Texas Legislature Regular Session Tracking the Progress of State-Funded Projects that Benefit Colonias 

The state is working to make improvements so more colonias get to green status. There are 14 projects with more than $50 million invested in Hidalgo County.

The money goes to water and waste, water connections and treatment plants.

The counties have no enforcement building codes. They do not have the authority to regulate and there is no legislation.

Hernandez explained a regulation needs to be added to the legislation.

“It would be an inspection or something that regulates, that they have an inspector come when we build. That would make it a lot easier for us to make sure we are doing the right thing,” she said.

Hernandez will finish the remodel on her house. She hired a contractor to make sure the home was built and wired properly. She hopes others will follow her example.

The state is currently working on their new tracking progress report. It will come out in 2018. The new report will show a change in the number of colonias in the red. The decisions are based on colonias that are not platted.

A platted property is a specific piece of land that shows boundary lines and a building plan by the property owner.

In Hidalgo County, there are 79 red colonias. In Cameron County, there are 55 colonias and in Starr there are 88 colonias.

Texas Colonia Communities (via Office of Attorney General)

The state explains Willacy County is not within the border counties where a representative is located. They are not required to report any color classification.

The Secretary of State’s Office said the makeshift subdivisions began springing up in the 60s. Since then, the Attorney General’s Office continued to crack down on the number of property owners not following the rules.

The state and county calls it subdividing. It is where a property owner provided multiple living spaces without legally dividing the property.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office said between 1995 and now, the Attorney General filed 111 colonias enforcement lawsuits. They have seven lawsuits pending.

Lauren Downey, the Assistant Attorney General and Public Information Coordinator, said it will take time, money and patience to ride the Valley of the problem. 

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