At home, there are basic things my family takes for granted.
We drink water from the tap. We use electricity to power our lights and appliances. Trash day is Tuesday.
I’m sure other Dallas suburbanites take these things for granted, too. After all, shouldn’t all neighborhoods have these basic necessities?
There are places in Texas where they don’t; the colonias, neighborhoods along the Texas border, often lack quality housing, electricity, clean water or sewer systems. In six counties — El Paso, Maverick, Webb, Starr, Hidalgo and Cameron — almost 370,000 people reside in colonias.
A recently released report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, “Las Colonias in the 21st Century,” offers a comprehensive look at these neighborhoods, where concentrated poverty is pervasive. Forty percent of those residents live below the poverty line, and 20 percent are at or just above it.
While researching our report, we learned about success stories emerging from the colonias — examples of progress that could be replicated in other underserved areas of Texas.
The majority of colonia residents, nearly 75 percent, are U.S. citizens. They want a piece of the American dream — to find a good job and own a home.
Currently, lack of education and low English proficiency serve as barriers to the workforce. About 43 percent of adults in the colonias are not officially in the labor force, but the majority are working, something that data don’t always show. Many operate in the border’s thriving informal economy.
Take a drive through a colonia, and you’ll be struck by the range of housing quality. On one block, you might see a brick house that looks like it’s straight from a middle-income Dallas subdivision. Turn the corner, and you might see a “hybrid” home — a dwelling built by combining a recreational vehicle and a cinder-block building. Many residents’ desire for homeownership is so strong that they’re willing to build the homes themselves, sometimes piece by piece, which can take years.
This desire can be costly. Few in the colonias use a bank or credit union to purchase their homes. Instead, they use rent-to-own arrangements with high interest rates. People who make monthly payments, while accruing little to no equity, might have their homes repossessed after missing one or two payments.
Our report highlights some best practices that can help overcome these challenges. Success starts with investment; there have been some wins in the colonias. The state of Texas has spent tens of millions of dollars in colonias in recent years, adding paved roads, sewage and drainage systems, and other basic infrastructure. Data compiled for the report show infrastructure has improved significantly since 2006.
There also are successes in housing. For example, the Lower Valley Housing Corp., or LVHC, in El Paso County provides affordable housing and homebuyer education to families with annual incomes at or below $17,500. In 2013, homeowners of LVHC-built houses paid $2.2 million in taxes. That’s a real impact on the local economy from residents who now live in quality housing.
Investment in infrastructure and quality housing over the short term is good, but it’s investment in people that pays off in the long run. In the colonias, there are opportunities for public and private investment to support education and entrepreneurship.
One of my favorite examples is Leticia Jones of Garciasville. She runs a prospering catering service called Letty’s Comida Casera, which she started from her own kitchen. Loans from microlender LiftFund helped her get rid of payday loans and build a kitchen outside her home. Today, she has found her niche selling meals to local school district employees.
Over time, those investments help strengthen the U.S. economy. Many of the successful programs highlighted in the report could serve as a blueprint for those working to improve life in the Texas colonias or other underserved neighborhoods, like the ones right here in Dallas.
Editor’s Note: The above op-ed first appeared in the Dallas Morning News. Click here to read it.
Editor’s Note: The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas will examine the efforts of community organizers, residents, elected officials, nonprofits and government agencies to improve conditions in Texas colonias in a conference today. “Las Colonias in the 21st Century: Progress Along the Texas–Mexico Border” will be from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. July 31 at the McAllen Convention Center.