Thirty-five years, ago hundreds of thousands of people lived in over 1,500 “colonias” in unincorporated areas along the Texas—Mexico border. Families lived in Third World conditions with a patchwork of unpaved roads, drinking water stored in  barrels and outhouses for toilets.

These “colonias” were often off the electric grid and  had no clean water service. They lacked sewage and water lines because unscrupulous developers sold land to buyers who built their own homes and trusted the developers to put in the utilities sometime in the future.

Silvia Camacho

Today, many of those same colonias are thriving communities that have been integrated into their nearby growing cities. They have the sewer and water connections, electricity, drainage as well as libraries, schools and parks that all families need. Some colonias are still outside of cities, but they have the utilities that families need. This transformation has occurred because Valley Interfaith, EPISO and our allies convinced the State of Texas, the border counties and the cities to work together to adopt and enforce Model Rules for Development that said developers can no longer sell lots to buyers for residential purposes without the necessary infrastructure of roads, water and sewer lines and proper drainage.

Now, HB 4108 by Rep. Ryan Guillen seeks to gut the Model Rules under the guise of giving local control to counties to waive the rules so that landowners can sell residential lots without having to provide the necessary sewer and water lines to buyers. Instead, HB 4108 would allow counties to waive the rules for good cause at the discretion of County. It would allow buyers to waive their protections under the law by signing an affidavit stating that the buyer will assume responsibility for connecting to water and sewer utilities. And they would exempt real estate agents from any legal liability for selling these lots to unsuspecting buyers. Despite protesting that they just want to unlock the value of this land so a landowner “can send his daughter to college”, the result will be a new proliferation of substandard “colonias” in unincorporated areas in border counties.

Eduardo Anaya

The two biggest border counties, El Paso and Hidalgo, oppose the bill but the Texas Association of Realtors supports it. The Realtors say on their website that “[m]odel subdivision laws were put into place to address important infrastructure and health and safety issues; however, the practical effect is that these properties become virtually unsalable, which in turn sets their market value at zero. This circumstance results in unfair and unjustified ad valorem taxation on property owners and negatively impacts the ability of property owners to freely sell or transfer ownership of this property.” The facts tell a different story. During 2022 alone, Hidalgo County approved 65 plats for the responsible development of 2,620 residences in unincorporated Hidalgo County. 

The Realtors solution is “full repeal of the Model Subdivision laws applicable to land within 50 miles of an international border.” If that is not possible, they want to “[a]llow buyers to assume the responsibility of establishing utility connections, including septic tanks where appropriate, within a certain time frame after purchase.” HB 4108 would do just what the Realtors are asking except that it doesn’t even require that the purchaser build a septic tank within a certain time frame.

HB 4108 weakens the important protections that have stopped the expansion of substandard colonias and strikes a profound blow against enforcement by counties and the Office of the Attorney General. We must stop HB 4108, not the Model Rules for Development.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned jointly by Eduardo Anaya, a leader within Valley Interfaith and Silvia Camacho, a leader within El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Committee. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the authors. Anaya and Camacho can be reached by email via: [email protected].

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