It’s rarely quiet in the Indian Hills colonia in Hidalgo County, Texas. Cars speed through on shoddily paved roads, blasting reggaeton, a type of music rooted in Latin and Caribbean culture; children kick rubber balls in pickup soccer games, while their parents — home from mowing lawns in McAllen, constructing houses in Pharr or picking tomatoes and onions in Edinburg — hang on the fences, gossiping. From rundown vans, men peddle popsicles, bread, corn, chiles, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos — anything, really, says Lourdes Salinas, a community organizer who has lived in the colonias (a term used for the spontaneous settlements on the U.S.-Mexico border that often lack basic infrastructure) for 22 years. “If you live in a colonia, the families are very low-income. Their houses need repairs…and most of the colonias, they need streets and lights. Around mine, they get inundated with water” that floods homes when it rains, she explains.
In southern Texas, where nearly 2,300 colonias dot the arid landscape surrounding the Rio Grande River before it spills into the Gulf of Mexico, nearly 400,000 residents — largely Hispanic — call these barrios home. About two-thirds are American-born citizens that subside on low-wage work. (Nationally, 34.8 percent of residents live in poverty.) Others are undocumented immigrants, who, having successfully crossed one border, don’t risk their chances driving north past dozens of interior checkpoints. Lacking money or papers, colonia residents build their own homes themselves (often without electricity or plumbing), raising a roof where their family first arrived in this country.
Outside of city limits, these areas of concentrated poverty resemble neighborhoods in a developing country. Paul Jargowsky, a public policy professor at Rutgers, refers to them as the “architecture of segregation,” a trend he’s seen explode nationally in American suburbs and among racial minorities. “After the dramatic decline in concentrated poverty between 1990 and 2000, there was a sense that cities were ‘back,’ and that the era of urban decay — marked by riots, violent crime, and abandonment — was drawing to a close. Unfortunately, despite the relative lack of public notice or awareness, poverty has re-concentrated,” he says. Families living in these slums must cope not only with their own financial hardship, but with all the social problems destitution brings: poor health, crime and limited educational and employment opportunities.
In 2000, McAllen, Texas, the largest city in Hidalgo County, had the highest concentration of Hispanic poverty in the country, with 61.4 percent of Latinos living in squalor. But through ambitious affordable housing programs, led by municipal government and a local nonprofit, the community has been able to break up these dense, distressed areas by reducing the number of Hispanics living in them by 10 percent, while the rest of the country saw a sharp increase. (Detroit’s rates, for example, jumped from 8.8 percent of Hispanics living in ghettoes to 51.1 percent over the same period; Milwaukee, too, skyrocketed from 5.3 percent to 43.2 percent.)
“To me, we have one of the most successful low-income housing programs in the country,” Mayor Jim Darling tells NationSwell. “It is a testament to the great American Dream of home ownership and how much that means to them.”
Hidalgo County’s colonias began to pop up in the 1950s, when farmers sold barren land to developers. Many quickly subdivided the unincorporated land into small lots and offered them to recent immigrants. (Often, they were sold through a “contract for deed” where developers offered comparatively low monthly rates, but would only turn over the deed when it had been paid in full. If a family fell behind, they lost the property and had no paperwork to show for it.) Frequently, homes were built piecemeal, adding rooms whenever a resident had some extra cash on hand.
For a time, McAllen focused on renovating the existing homes. Starting in 1976, a group of businessmen got together to eliminate outhouses in the area and hook up homes to sewers. By the mid-1980s, however, one mayor got fed up. “We don’t have to be repairing houses that are going to be falling down in two years,” Darling, the former city attorney who once provided legal advice for the housing program, recalls his predecessor saying.
The city’s affordable housing program looks different than the ones you’d find in urban areas where demand for prime lots is so high that policymakers can attach requirements (such as designating units for low-income residents) to large developments. In McAllen, low demand creates the opposite market dynamic: land is so cheap that the city can buy up undeveloped lots, hold the mortgages and offer them to residents most in need. So far, the plan has built more than 2,700 homes in the area, primarily available to those who had lived or worked in McAllen for two years; leveraging public capital with private banks has generated nearly $40 million in home loans. (A voucher program provides a rent subsidy for 150 apartment units is also available to residents.)
Program recipients are unique: The ideal customer is the person that “nobody else will lend to,” Darling says. Unlike a bank representative who’s following a given formula to determine whether or not an applicant should receive a loan, the city offers extra leeway to poor immigrant families, knowing their income isn’t consistent. It adds food stamps and other welfare to income calculations, for instance, and it knows that families may disappear for two or three months, picking crops up north, before returning to catch up on their loan responsibilities.
This same population is the main beneficiary of Proyecto Azteca, a nonprofit based in San Juan (a couple miles east of McAllen) that builds new, wood-framed homes for residents of the colonias. Residents are given 40-year mortgages at zero interest, as long as they contribute 150 towards the building of their own home (to learn valuable construction skills) or in community service. Since 1991, only a handful of Proyecto homes have been foreclosed on. The high success rate explains why 4,000 families are on its waiting list.
Both the City of McAllen and Proyecto Azteca have thought carefully about where to place this new construction. There’s an argument that slums must be broken up by redistributing the population, moving poor families into middle-class neighborhoods to add diversity. But there’s also something to be said for building a model three-bedroom home in the middle of the colonias, uplifting the community. So new housing is constructed in both locations.
While the situation is improving, McAllen has experienced its share of recent crises: drought (which set back Hidalgo County farmers and migrant laborers), rain (that flooded the colonias and displaced residents) and the child migrant crisis of 2014, where tens of thousands of youngsters fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, waded across the Rio Grande, seeking asylum. Add those occurrences to the region’s persistent poverty and Mayor Darling has a full plate of work. “They’re all opportunities,” is how he puts it, a chance to show off his hometown and find ways to improve it. “I don’t worry about legacies or anything else. What I would like to see is that, instead of working apart and against each other, we worked a lot more with each other for the betterment of our communities. If anything, I’ve tried to do that. That’s been a challenge,” he says, but challenges haven’t stopped him before.