The present day saga on one Texas non-border colonia

Rural lots with financing terms aimed at low income families are the basis of colonias.
Rural lots with financing terms aimed at low income families are the basis of colonias.

First Texas had colonias along the border with Mexico.  Now “non-border colonias” are an emerging issue.

A colonia, in Texas terms, is a subdivision, either legally or illegally subdivided, located in an unincorporated part of a county.  To be considered a colonia, the area generally must lack one or more essential public service: drainage, adequate roads, water, adequate wastewater disposal (approved septic system or sewer), electricity, etc.  A rural subdivision is also often described as a colonia if all the residents are low income and the housing is substandard.

As I discussed in an earlier entry, Texas counties generally lack ordinance-making powers to regulate development. The Texas Legislature fiercely guards private property and private development rights outside of municipal boundaries.  This creates a fertile ground to grow substandard colonias all across the state.

Many non-border colonias have been around for a long time.  For example, the San Jose community in Deaf Smith County outside the town of Hereford is a non-border colonia started for farm workers.  The community of Sand Branch in Dallas County south of the Dallas city limits is a non-border colonia of mostly low income African Americans.

Lately the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (TxLIHIS) has become engaged with a non-border colonia in Guadalupe County, named Rancho Vista about five miles east of San Marcos.  We were asked by the University of Texas Law School Environmental Law Clinic to help them deal with a serious environmental problem facing the colonia: septic tanks were failing and sewage was leaching to the surface and standing.  It was extremely unhealthy.

In working to get this remedied we came to learn the factors that went into the creation of this particular non-border colonia.  While the creation story of each non-border colonia varies, this particular story is illustrative of the phenomena statewide.

Some years ago a banker from a neighboring community came to own a tract of rural land, which had been subdivided into lots for houses or mobile homes in a subdivision he named Rancho Vista.  The land was marketed to low-income buyers who could not afford the price of housing in the nearby city of San Marcos where they had jobs.

To maximize profit on the sale of the lots the developer needed to create the smallest lots possible and not to have to spend any more money than necessary on public infrastructure. The seller of the land was able (at the time) to legally subdivide the lots into half-acre parcels so long as he provided a septic tank on each lot.

Lots were sold with little down and with low payments using a contract for deed sales system.  This was the predominate method of land sales in border colonias until a series of consumer protections were enacted by the Texas Legislature during the 1990’s that ended the predatory nature of these land sales arrangements.  (More on contracts for deed and our efforts to clean up their abuse in a future posting).  This method of land sales did allow really low-income families to be able to buy land.  It also produced problems and exploitation.

In Rancho Vista’s case, approximately 360 families bought lots.  Originally half acre plots sold for $6,000 or about $160 a month for twenty years.  Some families built houses or moved houses onto the lots.  Other families bought or rented mobile homes.  Frequently mobile home owners bought from individuals who did not provide title to the mobile homes.  Slowly community built up.  There were good and bad things about this colonia.  The rural location was peaceful and quiet.  The kids were kept away from an urban lifestyle, which their parents feared (this is a recurring reason given by both border and non-border colonia residents for moving from an urban area to a colonia).  Some of the houses became something to be proud of.  Other families struggled in terrible poverty and dilapidated trailers.  When fires would break out in the trailers, there was no water pressure to fight back and the volunteer fire department was a long way away.

A failed septic tank in Rancho Vista colonia leaves raw sewage on the ground surface.
A failed septic tank in Rancho Vista colonia leaves raw sewage on the ground surface.

Then came the problems with the septic tanks.

Based on today’s regulations, half acre lots will not legally support septic tanks in this area.  A combination of soil conditions and groundwater make septic tanks not a good choice.  The tanks started failing.  Pools of raw sewage began accumulating on the ground.  Since there was no municipal utility (the land developer put in the original tanks), the problem rested with each homeowner.  Many had no means to fix the problem.

Ruby Roa, working as an organizer for Texas Low Income Housing Information Service and the Environmental Law Clinic, began meeting one on one with the residents of  Rancho Vista, helping them to organize. After about a year of helping residents research and document community issues and building leadership within the colonia, the community identified short and long-term strategies for fixing the septic tank problem.  They then turned their attention to winning the support of local government officials to implement these solutions. Community leaders held initial meetings with their county commissioner and officials from San Marcos.  They followed up on these meetings turning out large numbers of residents at public meetings.  Residents are proudest of their effort with the county commissioners.

TxLIHIS community organizer speakes to a meeting of Rancho Vista homeowners.
TxLIHIS community organizer Ruby Roa (left) listens at meeting of Rancho Vista homeowners.

At 7:30 a.m. one summer morning, community leaders led a caravan of 75 residents to the Guadalupe County Commissioners monthly meeting. Filling the Commissioners Court to standing room only, Rancho Vista leader Manuel Vielma led off the community presentation, followed by Josefina Lehman and Mary Cruz’ stories and pictures of raw sewage problems.  Ms. Lehman dramatized her presentation by slapping onto the podium the rubber boots she wears to pass through the muck on her property. The community organization followed residents’ presentation with a presentation from Melinda Taylor director of the Environmental Law Clinic on environmental and health risks posed by the falling septic tanks.  Manuel Vielma then asked that the county implement a short term remedy by applying for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds from the state to replace the worst septic tanks. The Commissioners Court voted unanimously to support the residents of Rancho Vista.  Today the county is close to taking bids for replacing failing septic tanks.  In the longer run the solution is to tie the colonia into the nearby San Marcos regional sewer facility.

Rancho Vista community organization votes on issues to work together on.
Rancho Vista community organization votes on issues to work together on.

A host of other community problems need to be tackled.  But the colonia has made the first steps by organizing and becoming involved in the local civic process.

One modest colonia success story – a few thousand left to go.