A call to confront segregation in colonias: Addressing development and civil rights

[The following remarks were delivered on June 22, 2016 at a conference, Southwest Border Colonias: Housing and Sustainable Development in the 21st Century, hosted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.]

I want to suggest to you that the problems of colonias are not unique to the border or even our era, but are actually an age-old civil rights issue that has been around a long time. And therefore, we need to start approaching colonias as both a development and a civil rights problem.

I want to read to you what someone has written on the topic. [Note: The following excerpt, from Professor Andrew Wiese’s Places of Their Own, has been lightly edited.]

“In addition to settling in suburbs where they worked, thousands of migrants moved to strictly residential suburbs that promised primitive services, semi-rural surroundings, and the opportunity to own a home. A panel of experts on housing acknowledged the existence of a whole class of residential neighborhoods in ‘outlying territories where people are able to buy cheap land and build for themselves homes from whatever materials they can find, often a room or two at a time.’ Describing a subdivision, the committee wrote, ‘There is another class of people buying out six or eight miles from town. There is an acreage division out there which they sell in 1-acre tracts, and a good many people have gone out there…The type of people who buy have their work in town but they hear the cheap prices quoted and jump at it…It is just land out in the country’ without gas, water, or paved streets.”

That sounds like a description of colonias today. But what I just read was a description from 1932. And what’s being discussed is not a border colonia, but a ring of rural subdivisions built by white developers around the city of Houston and marketed to African-Americans. These lots were sold to African-Americans using contracts for deed more than 80 years ago.

Back then, African-American families were migrating to Houston from rural East Texas and Louisiana. These rural migrants were seeking economic opportunities in the city. There was no place for them to live in Houston. No way could they buy a lot and build a home. There was no city neighborhood where they could buy an existing home. Decent rental housing in the city was not affordable to them. Lacking better options, they turned to these predatory land subdividers and they bought lots and built their homes themselves over years, paying cash for building materials.

Does this sound familiar?

I came across this as I was researching the origins of some of the most economically and physically distressed neighborhoods in areas in Houston today. Each of the neighborhoods that I looked at had its origin as a colonia outside the city. These colonias were annexed into Houston in the 1950s.

Families who bought lots paid so much to developers for the land that between the purchase price, the high interest and the contract for deed, they didn’t have enough money left to build a decent home. As a result, substandard housing and concentrated poverty is still widespread in these neighborhoods today.

The developer didn’t put in city services such as paved streets, storm drainage, streetlights, sidewalks. So these neighborhoods flood and lack the basic type of city infrastructure that more privileged Anglo neighborhoods in Houston take for granted.

And because these colonias were marketed as racially segregated neighborhoods, they remain racially segregated neighborhoods today. And this segregation means residents have less political power to demand quality schools, public services, fair policing and all of the good stuff that other wealthier neighborhoods in the city enjoy.

The question we need to ask is whether 50 years from now many border colonias will be like those in Houston, mired in poverty. I am afraid the answer is yes.

As I was trying to come to grips with this historical insight I got a call from a journalist working for a national news outlet. He asked me to come look at some new colonias being platted on the outskirts of the Houston metro area. What I saw were almost 8,000 new lots being developed in the same manner as on the border. These lots are being marketed in Spanish language late-night TV infomercials to immigrants from Central America.

Considering the massive problems produced by 80-year-old colonias in Houston today and projecting the impact of 8,000 new colonia lots annexed into Houston or its suburbs twenty or so years from now is disturbing.

Colonias are platted and developed as de facto ethnically and economically segregated communities. It appears that local businesses and political leaders want the immigrants’ low-cost labor, but they don’t want them living in the city. The reasons include the perceived cost of providing services to the poor and burdens on schools and other public infrastructure. But they are also rooted in prejudice directed against immigrants and other poor families by existing city residents and their elected representatives. While in Houston these prejudices were those of whites against black migrants, in the border region today most elected leaders are Hispanic, like the migrants who end up living in colonias. Yet there are signs of subtle and sometimes not so subtle prejudice today.  A number of the residents of colonias are foreign-born persons who have been broadly demonized in the political realm. A number speak only Spanish. Most are very poor.

Local officials’ decisions to exclude poor people from their cities forces people to be subject to the problems of the colonias: Predatory land sales practices, substandard and highly exploitive credit and exposure to environmental hazards like flooding and pollution.

Sooner or later, as border cities grow, they will be compelled to annex the colonias along with the colonias’ segregation, substandard infrastructure and concentrated poverty. At that point cities will confront the prospect of having to retroactively build the public infrastructure that was never developed in these neighborhoods. They will annex the economically impoverished residents who have limited ability to pay property taxes.

At that point, border cities will act like Houston. They will find it so difficult, so expensive, and so politically unpopular that they will decide to forgo providing the missing infrastructure.

Through these circumstances, cities will consign generations of colonia residents to permanently inadequate neighborhoods and substandard housing conditions, financial exploitation, exposure to hazards and disease and the chronic economic and social conditions that exist in segregated high poverty neighborhoods and make it extremely difficult for children to climb out of poverty.

This is the main point that I want to get across today. While we clearly have to grapple with how to fix the conditions of substandard housing, inadequate infrastructure and environmental hazards which are endemic within the colonias, we must never accept that this method of development, this conscious and deliberate segregation, we must never accept that as anything other than a violation of the civil rights of colonia residents.

Segregation is morally wrong. Segregation is socially and financially devastating to its victims. And segregation is also financially disadvantageous in the long run for cities that embrace or tolerate it.

I will leave it to our keynote speaker, HUD Assistant Secretary Gustavo Velasquez, to discuss the legal consequences of such discrimination and segregation, and the actions HUD is calling on cities to take to promote integration. I will just say that a number of us are actively documenting these violations and we will press for legal enforcement actions against Texas cities that use colonias to exclude from cities classes of persons in an unlawful manner.

In the time I have remaining, I want to shift and discuss the major problems colonias face today and what to do about them.

The major problems are:

  • Environmental problems such as chronic flooding and standing stormwater which, among other things, may make the Zika virus an epidemic, and man-made environmental hazards such as pollution, dumping, agricultural pesticides and more.
  • The absence of essential public infrastructure in streetlights, safe pathways to schools including sidewalks, in a few cases the lack of water and in a lot of cases missing or failing wastewater systems and the absence of storm water systems.
  • A missing or dysfunctional residential real estate market that prevents the resale of homes.
  • The complete unavailability of traditional home mortgage financing that results in an exclusive reliance on predatory home lending.
  • Massive and chronic substandard and hazardous housing conditions.
  • Abuse of land sales contracts and interest rates, far exceeding reasonable rates of return.

Let’s be realistic. The nature, the scope and the cost of remediating these problems even just within the existing colonias today far exceeds any conceivable public resources that will be available. And we are building more of these substandard subdivisions at an alarming pace. The hole just keeps getting deeper.

And therefore, I must come back, once again, to the imperative that we stop expanding the scope of substandard residential subdivisions by demanding that the cities open themselves up to affordable rental housing and homeownership as at least a partial alternative to more colonias.

That said, I absolutely do not favor prohibiting individuals from making a decision to buy a lot and build a home in a colonia. People must be given the freedom to live somewhere. And, if the cities are going to continue to prevent affordable housing for low income families to be developed within their boundaries, then more colonias may be their only option.

But if colonias are the option today for most people, let’s do six things to make them better:

First, let’s reconsider calling them colonias. That plays into the prejudice and stigma that political leaders and urban residents use to justify exclusion of and prejudice toward those who live in these communities.

Second, let’s compel counties to strictly enforce their model subdivision standards. In the wake of recent rains in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, it has become apparent to everyone that the drainage standards the counties have adopted for new “model subdivisions” are completely inadequate, because these new so-called “model subdivisions” flood repeatedly and extensively.

Third, let’s revisit minimum lot size requirements. Half-acre minimum lot size requirements were adopted as a convenient rule of thumb as the minimum size necessary to support a septic tank. We should require a perk test for a new subdivision to determine accurately the lot size and type of septic tank that can adequately serve a residential structure. If we can downsize the lot sizes within new colonias, then we make them much more financially viable for later upgrades to public services and infrastructure and more politically palatable for future annexation.

Fourth, let’s introduce some competition into the private colonia development market by funding responsible nonprofit entities to create new subdivisions with infrastructure equivalent to that present with in urban areas.

Fifth, there is a need for stricter drainage standards. Those need to be regionally specific, but everywhere there should be a minimum standard of a 25-year storm event protection to prevent the flooding of homes in colonias.

And sixth, the public infrastructure required of colonia developers should be expanded to include streetlights, sidewalks, parks and other amenities that are common in other residential areas.

That’s a six point plan for improving new colonias.

Now let’s consider four things we can do to improve housing in the colonias:

First, we need to adopt and enforce a uniform building code for the construction of all colonia homes. Building codes are in place in a few counties, they are enforced in even fewer and the codes imposed vary too widely.

Second, we need the state to set aside additional low income housing tax credits within and adjacent to incorporated cities to construct affordable rental housing as an alternative to colonias.

Third, and above all, we need access to prime home construction and home mortgage loans. This means Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac need to step up and provide a secondary market for loans that are underwritten on terms that the families were talking about can qualify for. They need to accommodate the sort of incremental construction process that CDC Brownsville is pioneering. They need to provide the type of self-help loans that Lower Valley Housing Corporation specializes in. And the State of Texas needs to create a mortgage product that will feed into this new secondary market. Those mortgages could be modeled after the Texas Safe and Secure Home Loan initiative that was proposed by Senator Lucio several sessions ago in the Texas Legislature. This is a state loan product modeled on the USDA Section 502 direct loan program.

Fourth, there needs to be a massive effort at educating housing consumers. Colonias developers make it easy for people to buy land and they make it hard for them to pay it off and actually own it. There needs to be a safe and clear homeownership path that is widely publicized and understood by the people seeking to buy a home. A path that they can follow and access easily and consistently. One that is not blocked off when the number of clients becomes too large or when funding runs out for the program.

Fifth, let’s turn back one final time to defining the relationship between cities and colonias.

I began by discussing why cities must stop discrimination and segregation and embrace housing for immigrants and other low income persons.

Cities should also engage in planning and funding residential development and affordable housing programs, not only within the city but also in their extraterritorial jurisdictions and in the areas immediately beyond. These regions will inevitably, over time, become part of the city. If provisions are not made for adequate residential development with appropriate infrastructure and if affordable housing is not planned deliberately and appropriately across the entire area, then cities and low income people will all suffer.

Cities should undertake infill housing initiatives to make vacant and tax-foreclosed lots within urban areas available for homesteading by colonia residents, linked to self-help housing programs.

Cities need to work with realtors and banks to better market existing single-family homes at modest prices to potential homebuyers. They should make available linked programs to support the rehabilitation and title clearing for these homes so that they can be acquired by persons who would otherwise be limited to moving to colonias.

Cities need to recognize the essential role of nonprofits and community development corporations in the provision of housing in their areas. They need to follow the lead of the City of Brownsville in supporting CDC Brownsville. And cities need to support outstanding design in both individual home architecture, multifamily housing and in new affordable housing subdivisions such as the work in Cameron County by [bc]Workshop.

We have made remarkable progress on colonia water, wastewater and roads through massive direct state appropriations. That shows the problems can be fixed if there is a will. But beyond these few important services. we have not made much progress in other areas of colonia infrastructure or housing.

As long as we accept segregation of the majority of the poor in separate and unequal colonias outside cities, this problem of neighborhood and housing inequality will plague the families of the colonias and eventually increase ghettos in the cities themselves. Cities must embrace the challenge of including these families. If we want to see progress over the next generation we must insist cities do so. It is up to all of us to work to help cities find the will, the tools and the financial resources to meet this challenge.