Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Residents in America’s Poorest City Receive Customized Housing

October 16, 2014
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Residents in America’s Poorest City Receive Customized Housing
La Hacienda Casitas in Harlingen, Texas. bcWorkshop
The extra details make the houses feel even homier.

It sounds strange, but there are still towns in American without paved roads and sewage systems.

This is the reality facing many people living in Texas’s 1,800 colonias — neighborhoods originally developed in the 1950s on unusable land for low-income people, particularly Hispanics.

Brownsville, located in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, is home to many colonias. In addition to being the poorest city in America with 36 percent of residents living in poverty, Brownsville residents also have some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes.

Considering all of these factors, the quality of life in this Texas town seems pretty poor, or at least it was until the nonprofit bcWorkshop (led by Dallas architect Brent Brown) and the Community Development Corporation (CDC) of Brownsville stepped in.

The result of their collaboration? A 56-unit apartment complex called La Hacienda Casitas. Together, the groups have also designed a hiking and biking trail through one of the worst neighborhoods, a disaster relief housing prototype and improved infrastructure plans for seven colonias.

Next, the groups are working on La Hacienda Two. And while apartment complexes can be churned out quickly according to CDC executive director Nick Mitchell-Bennett, these groups are taking their time and adding a personal touch.

Instead of making cookie-cutter houses, bcWorkshop and the CDC asked the individual residents what they want in their residences. While the personalization may add an extra four to six weeks to the building process, the results are worth it.

“Somebody who makes $8.50 an hour, they’re never asked, ‘What do you want?'” Mitchell-Bennett tells City Lab. “By the end of the process … they designed this house.”

And for people who are used to living with very little, the pride in ownership and design is a new and welcome phenomenon.

“There’s a real need for what I would consider design-focused effort to assist other organizing and community-building efforts” in the Rio Grande Valley, Brown explains. “So it made a nice fit.”

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