McALLEN, RGV – Following a major speech about the state of Texas colonias on Friday, state Sen. Eddie Lucio said he would be inviting Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to visit unincorporated areas of the Rio Grande Valley.

Lucio was keynote speaker at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas’ “Las Colonias in the 21s Century – Progress along the Texas-Mexico Border” conference, held at the McAllen Convention Center. The conference was held to unveil the bank’s latest study of Texas colonias.

“I have a great deal of respect for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and for my colleagues in the Senate. I need to convince them of the impact that a little bit more money would make on the lives of so many in our colonias. I do not think it will be a tough job if I can show them our colonias,” Lucio told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“It Gov. Patrick and my Senate colleagues afford me an opportunity to come together with our sleeves rolled up we can walk these colonias, we can talk to the people, we can see the faith they live with and the hope they have that someday their children can move out and move on. That is what I want to see.”

In his remarks, Lucio spoke about how resilient and hardworking colonia residents are generally. This was a common theme throughout the conference. “When visitors see colonias they are shocked by some of the substandard living conditions and poverty. They look at us and ask why has this happened?” Lucio said. “We should recognize that the people working hardest to overcome these conditions are colonia residents themselves. They fight to get out of poverty with every concrete block they raise to erect a wall on the new home they are building. They fight to get out of poverty by getting up early each morning to help kids get to school to get an education so they can get a better job than they have. They fight to get out of poverty when they organize through groups like LUPE and ARISE to meet with their county commissioners to get basic services.”

Jordana Barton of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
Jordana Barton of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Lucio spoke about an intern that worked for him during the legislative session that was about to enter law school. Alex Guajardo comes from a colonia in Las Milpas. His family still lives there. “It makes me feel good that there are parents who really care about their kids. It is up to us to make sure we create a little bit better quality of life for them,” Lucio told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Also in his remarks, Lucio acknowledged he has tried for years to pass legislation that would stop the proliferation of colonias only to be thwarted by developers and the building industry. He also said that by not focusing on building more affordable homes, local governments had, over the years, not helped matters.

Lucio spoke too about legislation he filed this year that would have made it easier to build affordable homes for colonia residents. The legislation did not pass. “It took me three sessions to pass legislation to help autistic children. It took me three sessions to pass life without parole. It took me three sessions to increase the size of the TxDOT board. Sometimes my colleagues are not receptive to things that eventually are seen as important, important in the lives of our people,” Lucio told the Rio Grande Guardian, after his speech. “So, I am hopeful that will change when it comes to my colonia legislation. I plan to have a series of talks, meetings, with our lieutenant governor. I hope he can help us. In a budget of $209 billion I think we can find $10 to $15 million for something as important as this.”

Editor’s Note: Here, in full, are state Sen. Lucio’s remarks at the conference:

It is an honor to be with you today. I want to thank the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas for inviting me to this conference and especially to Jordana Barton for helping put the spotlight on addressing the needs of our colonias with the latest Federal Reserve Colonia Report. We met in Austin and it was a wonderful event.

As Jordana can attest, my office has spent several hours and held multiple meetings and conference calls with her and her staff to help provide some essential background and insight on the needs of our colonias. As my legislative and committee director has share with Jordana on several occasions, I welcome the Federal Reserve’s involvement in our community and hope that Jordana’s report is the beginning of a productive and continual partnership that can be strengthened this interim.

Valley is Unique

We who live in the Valley understand it is a special and unique place. In the Lower Rio Grande Valley we value three things above all: our families, our faith and, of course, our culture. The Valley is a gateway where two great nations meet. As a gateway the Valley attracts people seeking new opportunity.

Visitors look at our region of Texas and wonder why things are so different here than in the rest of the state. We are a place where different people, different economies and different cultures come together. This creates a set of unique challenges.

Colonias are one of the greatest challenges.

When visitors see colonias they are shocked by some of the substandard living conditions and poverty. They look at us and ask why has this happened? Why are people living like this? These types of remarks force us to engage in soul searching. How indeed, as Christians, do we tolerate extreme poverty in our midst?

Many of us in this room respond by not accepting things as they are and work to develop solutions.

But this is not about outsiders. We should recognize that the people working hardest to overcome these conditions are colonia residents themselves. They fight to get out of poverty with every concrete block they raise to erect a wall on the new home they are building. They fight to get out of poverty by getting up early each morning to help their kids get to school to get an education so they can get a better job than they have. They fight to get out of poverty when they organize through groups like LUPE and ARISE to meet with their county commissioners to get basic services.

Colonia residents fight poverty when they come to Austin to testify for legislation to end the exploitation of contract-for-deed land sales and win support to have studies undertaken by our state agencies to document the flooding problems that plague their colonias, our colonias.

No one knows better the importance of addressing the poverty in colonias and no one is doing more to try to fix it than they residents of colonias themselves. (Editor’s Note: There was applause from the audience for this line.)

And for that, I stand here to commend you for your efforts and urge you to remain steadfast and to continue your resolve.

Rest assured that we, your elected officials in Austin, understand your plight and will support your efforts to make a home and improve your community for all your families.

History of Colonias

When I met Jordana in Austin about a month ago, she asked me: how could colonias develop? How could things have become as they have; and how could our colonias be improved?

The answer is complex; colonias came to be for a number of reasons. As many here would agree, historically colonias came to be because our system of laws and practices at the local and at the state level allowed these problems to develop.

For years, developers were allowed to exploit the innocence of those who needed affordable housing and were allowed to sell lots and build colonias without providing the types of basic service that most of us take for granted – water, wastewater, electricity, and drainage to name a few.

In Austin, we fight special interests to pass laws directing counties to make sure that developers provide basic services, yet how often have you read in the papers that the model subdivision rules have been enforced at the local level? Unfortunately, too often those laws are not enforced by border counties.

We set up housing programs to provide funding for self-help housing through colonia Self-Help Centers like the Brownsville Community Development Corporation and Proyecto Azteca. But our state leaders refuse to provide enough funds to make more than a handful of loans each year. We are going to change that – I have an idea.

We pass laws outlawing the exploitation of colonia residents through predatory land sales practices like contracts for deed. However, along parts of the border to this day these practices continue.

Our cities have not done enough to provide affordable housing. The result is the proliferation of ever more colonias that sprawl all across our rural areas, create severe transportation problems for people, and impose increasing tax burdens as our school districts struggle to finance new schools to serve distant and remote colonias.

Faith and Self-Help Spirit of Colonias

Yet, as the rest of us struggle to address the problems of colonias, colonia residents themselves go forward with their effort to provide a better life with the few resources they have, lifting one concrete block at a time to build the wall for their home. This is a miracle. Their faith propels them to build a better life for their families despite the many obstacles that they have in their way.

I began by noting that visitors to the Valley wonder why things are so different here. They see the poverty our people endure and they are shocked. But as visitors get to know our people they find something in them that is far more remarkable than colonia poverty. They discover the optimism of our people, especially immigrants. When you visit other parts of the country, especially inner cities and poverty neighborhoods, you appreciate just how unique we are in our optimism and self-help spirit. Our people have not given into despair like so many of the urban poor in other parts of the country. Colonia residents have embraced the potential for a better life even in the face of great difficulty.

The challenge for all of us is to clear the barriers to permit people to do what they want to do – to create a good home, get a better job and help their kids get ahead.

Texas Bootstrap: Going against the Grain

Clearing barriers is not easy. In 1999, against the will of skeptics, I passed a bill that provided for a demonstration program that would assist low-income families to own a home by building on their sweat equity of their labor. No one believed that we would be successful. Fortunately, this small program that everyone said would not succeed has proven them wrong; sixteen years later this program has made Texas the leader in self-help housing in the nation.

We need to encourage more innovative solutions, like our Bootstrap Program to help our colonia residents to own a safe, decent home. We need to continue to rise to the challenge and not be afraid of the odds.

Fortunately in our community we have great community leaders, like my good friend Nick Mitchell Bennett who has a gift for developing programs that show state officials in Austin how affordable housing programs can work in the Valley and that increase the quality of life of our low-income families.

For example, back in 2009, in the wake of Hurricanes Dolly and Ike, it was clear to me that a rapid, efficient, and effective program to provide temporary and permanent housing for Texans whose homes had been damaged or destroyed by natural disasters was woefully lacking in our state. So, I was able to pass the needed legislation for Texas to have a demonstration program to prove that our region could do a better job in disaster reconstruction.

Years later, under Nick Mitchell’s leadership, a program was developed through the CORE and RAPIDO projects. When people outside our region see the results of this innovative program, the first thing that they say is that it should be the standard for disaster recovery for the state.

As the author of the bill that was the impetus for this demonstration program to become a reality. I take great pride in knowing that it was and is our region that is coming up with innovative solutions like this to address critical statewide problems.

This is why I am committed to assist Nick Mitchell with the MICASITA innovative project that strives to make safe, decent affordable housing possible for rural and colonia residents by building on the success of the RAPIDO project.

Steps to Address Colonias

Aside from our ‘can-do’ spirit of innovation, there are several critical steps that need to be undertaken to better address our colonias and these include:

* Bringing the public services, roads, drainage, streetlights, and parks that should have been provided in the first place to the existing colonias
* Stop developers from building any more subdivisions that do not have these services and go back to make those who promised to provide those services keep their promises.
* We need to create a home mortgage and home construction system that works for folks with very low-incomes to be able to afford to finance and build a home. In other words, we need additional Bootstrap-like programs and Nick’s MICASITA innovative project to become the mainstay programs in our state.
* Our cities need to create affordable housing, both owner and rental homes, to provide alternatives to continuing to build more rural colonias far away from jobs, schools and transportation.
* We need to once and for all provide counties limited ordinance making authority so that we will have better guided growth in unincorporated areas. For years I have tried to pass this initiative, only to have it stopped by developers and the building industry that are driven by, unfortunately, their profit motive.
* To do all of this, we need to continue to have an outreach campaign and build needed partnerships with our local, state, and federal governments, as well as encourage public-private partnerships.

We need to continue to bring attention to our colonias so much that it receives the same level of attention as does border security. If our state would help provide a small portion of the $800 million that our state is now spending on enhanced border security on improving the colonias, we could start solving these inequalities fairly quickly. (Editor’s Note: There was applause from the audience for this line.)

However, the solution starts with you, with individuals like the representatives that visited my office in Austin fairly often during the last interim on the drainage study that were successful in correcting and will finally begin to inform us on the drainage needs of our colonias.

Above all, we need to listen to the residents of colonias when they come to government to explain what they need. Colonia residents are decent, hard-working people struggling to build a better life in the face of the outrageous obstacles. We should commend them for their efforts and provide them with a helping hand. We all have a stake in helping them succeed.

Jordana, the future of our colonias is being shaped here on a daily basis. The can-do spirit of innovation needs your help. Please continue working with our colonia residents, state agencies and legislative offices. Let your study be the first in many other studies to come.

When visiting with state agencies to challenge them to identify the inherent barriers in the status quo that have impeded a better quality of life from developing in our colonias.

Ask our local, state, and federal agencies for their insightful advice on how our colonia residents and units of government can overcome those barriers. Report on the insight and recommendations that you receive. Above all, continue to help us shed some light on these critical issues so that with every report that you publish there will be a new, successful, colonia story highlighted in your narrative.

For my part, as I shared with Jordana, we are planning an affordable housing conference for this interim and we will be inviting the Federal Reserve to be part of our interim work.

People are dying in our state because they cannot to live. As we toured the Valley yesterday with the new commissioner of health and human services we stopped in the Brownsville clinic. He showed us insulin that it costs $15 to get but it cost $180 for the patient. I was just outraged by the amount of money that we have to pay to get somebody well in this state and this country. Nobody should have to die because they cannot afford to live.

Help me as we continue to work on trying to make sure our children do not go to bed hungry. That is an issue dear to my heart. An issue that I have taken very seriously and one that I have been able to convince, even though it has taken two or three legislative sessions, our legislators and state leaders to pass the necessary laws that will make sure that our children eat nutritious meals in our public schools and also in the summer time when our schools are open for activities, that the cafeterias open up to feed our children. Those are major issues, not only for the children in our colonias but for all children in our society.

Thank you and once again it has been an honor to be with you here today.

Que nuestro Dios los bendiga a todos.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories coming out of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas’ “Las Colonias in the 21s Century” conference. Other stories will be posted in the coming days.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., with members of ARISE.