The worst housing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of horrible housing, is not in inner-city ghettoes or American Indian reservations, bad as those can be.
No, the worst housing I’ve ever seen is in the border areas adjacent to Mexico. Communities called colonias can feature unpaved roads, no sewer or water or electricity hookups, and ramshackle houses built of whatever crappy building materials come to hand. If you can imagine a house built on a frame of pallet skids covered in tarpaper, you’re in the groove on the colonias.
The colonias dot our Mexican border in four states: California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Basically they are tracts of land bought by developers and then subdivided and sold off in unimproved lots using financing which often calls for a default if even one payment is missed. Colonias residents typically put their resources into acquiring the land. The house is built catch as catch can.
I’m reminded of the colonias because of a conference I attended in Washington last week on rural housing. The group that put on the meeting, the Housing Assistance Council, released a new edition of its comprehensive publication Taking Stock that includes a section on the colonias.
Many of the colonias are rural, though some exist on the outskirts of cities like El Paso, Texas. The report has lots of interesting stats. In rural border regions, for instance, almost a quarter of homes are valued at $50,000 or less. That’s three times the national average. Houses in the border area lack plumbing at twice the national average and a considerably higher percentage lack complete kitchen facilities.
HAC notes some “modest gains” in housing conditions along the border areas, led by Texas, which has the most of them. New Mexico has also passed a bill to help state colonias with infrastructure costs. But, the group’s report says, remote areas make building infrastructure “prohibitively expensive.”
The colonias are, typically, dismal places where disease and social problems run rampant. A tour of them leads to a feeling of shame that such conditions are tolerated in our country. Maybe more people need to take the tour.