Colonias and Public Policy in Texas and Mexico

[ Texas ]

Colonias and Public Policy in Texas and Mexico

Urbanization by Stealth

By Peter M. Ward

This book presents the results of a major study of colonias in three transborder metropolitan areas and uncovers the reasons why colonias are spreading so rapidly.



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6 x 9 | 307 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-79125-1

Today in Texas, over 1500 colonias in the counties along the Mexican border are home to some 400,000 people. Often lacking basic services, such as electricity, water and sewerage, fire protection, policing, schools, and health care, these "irregular" subdivisions offer the only low-cost housing available to the mostly Hispanic working poor.

This book presents the results of a major study of colonias in three transborder metropolitan areas and uncovers the reasons why colonias are spreading so rapidly. Peter Ward compares Texas colonias with their Mexican counterparts, many of which have developed into fully integrated working-class urban communities. He describes how Mexican governments have worked with colonia residents to make physical improvements and upgrade services-a model that Texas policymakers can learn from, Ward asserts. Finally, he concludes with a hard-hitting checklist of public policy initiatives that need to be considered as colonia housing policy enters its second decade in Texas.

  • Abbreviations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Perspectives on Texas Colonias and the Project Methodology
  • Chapter 1. Introduction to the Border Region and to the Case Study Cities
  • Chapter 2. Land and Housing Production in the Colonias of Texas and Mexico
  • Chapter 3. Servicing No Man's Land: Ambivalence versus Commitment in the Texas-Mexico Colonias
  • Chapter 4. Settlements or Communities? Social Organization and Participation in the Colonias
  • Chapter 5. Social Services to Colonias: Shifting the Focus toward Means Rather than Ends
  • Chapter 6. Conclusion: Texas Colonias and the Next Policy Wave
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

This book is about the phenomenon of colonias in Texas and in northern Mexican border states. While the focus is upon the Texas-Mexico border, the findings will bear scrutiny in all of the border states, given that throughout the border region colonias are important low-income housing areas, the principal characteristics of which are cheaply acquired land, inadequate infrastructure, and self-help dwelling construction. But despite the enormous social costs associated with living and raising a family under these conditions, colonias are home for a large number of people—indeed, in Mexico, for the majority of the population in many cities. Fortunately, the physical conditions in colonias improve over time. They are, in the words of one author, "Slums of hope" (Lloyd 1979), such that between fifteen and twenty years after their establishment they have often become integrated working-class districts with paved roads, services installed, and consolidated dwellings, many with two stories. They are, then, both a problem and a solution—at least if one takes a long-term perspective (Mangin 1967).

Although different in certain respects from their Mexican counterparts, Texas colonias are fundamentally the same phenomenon. While colonias exist throughout Texas, by far their largest concentration is in the border region with Mexico, where more than 1,400 such settlements house approximately 350,000 people (OAG 1996; see also LBJ 1997, 2:TWDB data). Certain border counties have particularly large concentrations: El Paso County has 157 colonias with almost 73,000 people; Maverick County has 44 colonias housing some 14,000; and Webb has 43, housing 8,000 (see Table 1, and Davies 1995, 47). The heaviest concentration falls in the Lower Rio Grande counties of Starr (128 colonias with 34,000 people), Hidalgo (860 with 124,000), and Cameron (119 with 39,000).

Generally the characteristics of Texas colonias are fairly uniform (see Chapter 3, Table 13 for further details). Invariably they are low-density peri-urban settlements located within or beyond the Extra Territorial Jurisdiction (ETJ) of cities, lacking in basic services such as running water, drainage, street lighting, and paving. Some do not even have electricity. People must purchase water and store it in 55-gallon drums or in larger tanks. Alternatively they sink shallow wells and draw water from what are increasingly likely to be contaminated groundwater sources, given that households have to make do with pit latrines and cesspools instead of proper sewage disposal systems or septic fields. Given the appalling environmental conditions, diseases are endemic, and the rates of shigellosis and hepatitis A are more than twice the U.S. rate. Eighty percent of colonia residents have incomes at or below the poverty level. Their homes are a mixture of trailers and self-built constructions, with the long-term goal of achieving a fully consolidated brick-built dwelling. With exploitation by land developers, the modal purchase price of lots is between $1,000 and $2,000 (but often rising to $10,000). These lots were bought under a Contract for Deed mechanism which, until recently, allowed land to be subdivided and sold without services under terms which were poorly understood by purchasers, and allowed for immediate and total forfeiture if one or more monthly payments were missed. Colonia population is almost uniformly Hispanic. On average between 65 and 80 percent of adults are U.S. citizens (OAG 1993). An estimated one-third of colonia residents do not speak English. Nevertheless, despite the common stereotype, that colonias are a refuge and a reception point for undocumented aliens, in fact they are primarily poor neighborhoods of U.S. citizens (even if a large proportion of adults and family heads may have originated in Mexico). These conditions are the principal reasons for the public outrage that began to emerge in the late 1980s at these "Third World" settlements in the world's richest nation. Until that time they had been neglected and ignored, sometimes referred to as harijan (outcaste) settlements without any legal or juridical status (Davies and Holz 1992). However, notwithstanding the rising concern about colonias in Texas, especially at the state government level, the prospects for successful upgrading and urban integration of the Texas colonias—unlike their Mexican counterparts—remain bleak, and a primary aim of this book is to discover why.

The inspiration for this study and for the two-semester LBJ School Policy Research Project from which it derives began with a Governor's Task Force meeting on the colonias held in Austin in 1992. That task force brought together a mixed-constituency group of academics, public officials, nongovernment organization representatives, and religious and other leaders from all over the state. Although my PRP codirector Duncan Earle had been actively engaged in the colonias through his duties at the Center for Housing and Urban Development (CfHUD) at Texas A&M University, my own experience was exclusively in Mexico and in "Third World" colonias. As one who then knew very little about Texas colonias, but had studied and advised Mexican governments over twenty years on the parallel and much more widespread phenomenon of illegal urban growth and so-called irregular settlements (also called colonias), I was immediately surprised to discover that Texas appeared to be seeking to "reinvent the wheel" in its response to the existence and expansion of its colonia problem. Many researchers and public officials—invariably in good faith—were seeking to understand the underlying causes and nature of colonia growth. They were asking how public policy might respond to colonia land developers. How to effectively address land title ambiguities and insecurities. How to provide essential services of water, power, public transport, and social service infrastructure to low-income and low-density populations. How to engage with these settlement populations and with the community development organizations that had evolved within them.

These were all very pertinent policy questions, but no one seemed to be asking what we might learn from Mexico about these processes and about the appropriate public policy response. After all, in many Mexican cities over one-half of the built-up area began as colonias, and these settlements represent the only affordable low-income housing option for over 60 percent of the population (Ward 1982a; Connolly 1982; Regalado 1995; Villarreal and Castañeda 1986). Moreover, Mexican national, state, and local governments have over twenty years' experience of policies in response to these same questions, and, notwithstanding the nation's relative poverty and level of underdevelopment, federal and local governments have been successful in gradually integrating such areas into the physical fabric of the city. Indeed, at the risk of appearing to trivialize an extremely urgent and pressing social problem, it seemed to me that the only thing that Texas had learned from Mexico in this respect was what to call the phenomenon—colonias.

Therefore, this Policy Research Project (PRP) was conceived with the express purpose to analyze the colonia phenomenon on both sides of the border. My assumption was not that the colonias in Texas and Mexico were the same, but that they would benefit from being analyzed comparatively, and that they form part of a common logic of economic development and labor power reproduction. I also began with the assumption that Texas could learn from some of the tried and tested policy approaches in Mexico, and that policymakers and community officials on both sides of the border would benefit from a cross-border dialogue regarding their respective housing and community development experiences. In part, at least, this dialogue was fostered by an end-of-project conference organized by the LBJ School and the Mexican Center at UT-Austin, which brought together academics, policymakers, and colonia residents and activists from both sides of the border.

Indeed, as the chapters in this volume and presentations at the conference show, there are fundamental differences between the nature of colonias and colonia development in Texas and Mexico. Briefly, Texas colonias are different in the following important respects. First, unlike their Mexican counterparts, the land development process has usually been legal (through Contract for Deed). This means that there is rarely recourse to tenurial "regularization" in Texas (i.e., the legalization of so-called "clouded" land titles), whereas in Mexico this has emerged as one of the single most important policy arenas. Second, Texas settlements are much smaller both physically and in terms of their population. Moreover, they usually comprise considerably larger lots, which creates low population densities and makes public intervention much more expensive in unit-cost terms; smaller absolute population numbers and low voter registration also make them less imperative in political (voter-electoral) terms. Third, Texas colonias are different insofar as they possess little or no sense of community; formal and informal community organization structures are weak or nonexistent, especially during the process of settlement development. Fourth, there are major differences in the jurisdictional coverage they are accorded, and in the nature of public-sector (city) responsibilities and responsiveness. In Texas, colonias are invariably located in an administrative no man's land falling beyond the city's limits or in the discretionary ETJ, where there is neither the incentive nor the statutory requirement for the city to respond. In Mexico, there is no such jurisdictional ambiguity since the city and municipality (county-equivalent) authorities are one and the same. Here the only problem is when colonias extend across more than one municipality, making coordination necessary between two or more municipal authorities. Finally, arising from the previous point, Texas colonias are subject to more multiplex interventions from public- and private-sector organizations at various levels, often acting independently of one another—to a much greater extent even than in their Mexican counterparts, where this has also been a common feature, especially in the past (Ward 1986).

Moreover, Texas does not appear to have an integrated housing policy, but rather a series of segmented lines of action often reporting to different levels of government. The colonias housing "problem" is conceived more as an issue of environmental and health care concern, rather than a housing issue per se, as it is in Mexico. Thus, public-sector responses are construed in terms of task forces and strike forces which view the problem in partial and temporary terms as a dysfunctional aberration, and not as an integrated problem of housing and regional economic underdevelopment.

The Policy Research Project was undertaken at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at UT-Austin over a two-semester period in 1994-1995. It was codirected by the author on behalf of the LBJ School, and by Dr. Duncan Earle on behalf of the Center for Housing and Urban Development (CfHUD) at Texas A&M University. Through its support from the Texas Legislature, CfHUD had taken the lead in developing research and supportive actions in the colonias of Texas. Given the LBJ School's expertise in public policy, and its strength in contemporary Mexican and border research, this PRP was commissioned. It was funded by CfHUD, and I am grateful to its director, Mr. Kermit Black, for his belief that Texas might have something to learn from Mexico about how to approach the colonias problem, and for his willingness to set aside academic and institutional rivalries in order to bring our collective expertise to bear on what is, perhaps, the single most pressing problem facing the State of Texas at this time, albeit one that is spatially limited.

Changing Approaches to Colonias in Mexico since the 1970s

Before proceeding to outline the research project and methodology I should, perhaps, pause and review the way in which the understanding of and approaches to colonias or irregular settlements have developed in Mexico during the past two to three decades. Several important shifts in housing policy may be identified. During the 1960s Mexican governments followed the orthodoxy of formal housing projects, stereotyping colonias as a "cancer," and as marginal and dysfunctional aberrations arising from rapid urbanization. Policies at that time were principally those of eviction, limited-scale formal housing projects, and laissez faire (which amounted to neglect given the magnitude of the problem).

However, from the mid-1970s onward colonias began to be viewed more positively in Mexico, and policy sought to embrace self-help by proposing small-scale interventions that would legalize illegal land titles, provide essential services, support community organizations and initiatives, etc. (Turner 1976; Ward 1982a). New forms of small credit were generated, and a series of agencies emerged with specific responsibility for housing-sector policies (Gilbert and Ward 1985). The 1980s saw a streamlining of those agencies and greater integration of their efforts supported by national housing policy legislation (Ward 1990, 1993) Many of the federal initiatives began to be applied more widely by state and local government (Villarreal and Castañeda 1986). Increasingly, too, there has been a focus upon rental and nonowner housing and policy interventions (Gilbert and Varley 1991).

During the 1990s, World Bank orthodoxy in the form of the New Urban Management Policy has found a strong echo in Mexico, seeking, as it does, to incorporate colonias into the fiscal and regulatory basis of the city, and to stimulate whatever urban productivity, as it is called, that may be derived from such areas—both as source of income for cities, and for residents through the equity and production activities that lot holding and occupancy may offer (Doebele 1994; Jones and Ward 1994; UNCHS 1996).

In Texas, however, there continues to be a tendency to view colonias as a temporary problem of dysfunctional urbanization and as a refuge settlement for cross-border immigrant populations (Davies and Holz 11992). Their role as legitimate working-class communities and their contribution to economic and industrial development in the border region have been neither sufficiently recognized nor emphasized (Earle 11995; Peña 1997). Leadership exercised by state government has been limited, while local governments are unwilling and/or ill prepared to respond to colonia needs. In short, there is an urgent need to give greater consideration to the way in which we, in Texas, approach the colonias phenomenon, and to think more aggressively and imaginatively about how we can intervene more effectively. I believe that important lessons may be learned from Mexico in this respect.

A Note on Methodology

When one analyzes colonias one does so through a particular "optic"—often implicitly, without understanding that the particular lens that is used colors and defines the way of viewing and responding to the problem at hand (see Jones and Ward 1994; Tipple and Willis 1991). There are two broad paradigms that are widely used today. First, a neoclassical economics approach, which tends to disaggregate different housing markets and their operationalization in terms of supply/demand, location, and the extent to which the market responds smoothly. Public policies here seek to make the market operate more efficiently. Second, the political economy focus, which looks at actors, interest groups, and the alignment and interactions of those interests in articulation of capital accumulation. It focuses more upon the ways in which housing is produced and articulated with a wide range of interests by state policy (or nonpolicy). In this case policies tend to depend more heavily upon state intervention and activism. Both approaches are valid, but the important point is to recognize the relationship that will be invoked between the methodology adopted and policy approaches.

Traditionally, in Texas, the former approach has been adopted. However, following the research of an increasingly large number of analysts worldwide (see Gilbert and Ward 1985; Mathéy 1992), and the approach most usually adopted in Mexico, it was decided to use a political economy paradigm for this study. In so doing, it was anticipated that we would be able to gain insights about the production of the built (colonia) environment, disaggregating the economic and political interests that are involved with the creation and dynamics of colonia development processes. The hypothesis was that these are not housing areas which arise by default through labor market dysfunctionality, but are part and parcel of an ongoing process of development and lowcost labor market creation. Clearly, within that overall process, default policy actions and inaction, market blockages, human agency, migration, institutional rivalries, and so on, all play a part. But the nub of the argument is that colonias are actively produced and articulated, rather than being a residual outcome of rapid urbanization—hence the title of the originating LBJ School Policy Research Project, Housing Production, Social and Physical Infrastructure, and Public Policy in the Colonias of the Border Region of Texas and Mexico.

The Study Methodology and Timeline

Under Ward and Earle's direction much of the fieldwork was conducted by twenty-four graduate students, almost all of whom came from UT-Austin: from the LBJ School, from the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS), and from the Department of Community and Regional Planning. The class comprised one three-hour seminar meeting each week, with frequent additional subgroup meetings to elaborate research agendas, data analysis, and preparation of documents for presentation and discussion. As well as being featured in this book, some of the group's findings were also presented in four separate papers at the May 1995 housing conference (see endnote 3).

Data collection and analysis were undertaken according to a common methodology applied in six paired border cities: Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Nuevo Laredo and Laredo, and Matamoros and Brownsville. The first ten weeks involved preparation, during which the group focused upon reviewing the literature about self-help and low-income housing issues in general, and about the border context specifically. This resulted in the creation of the first of several of what we called base documents, which offered a diagnosis of the geography, economy, demography, and culture of the border region for the state of Texas on the U.S. side, and on the Mexican side, principally the states of Chihuahua and Tamaulipas. Some of these materials have been incorporated into Chapter 11 of this volume. In addition, extensive analysis and archival research of the housing problem and its sectoral manifestations were undertaken, as well as of the statutory arrangements for Texas and for the two Mexican border states, and of the six cities themselves.

In short, the methodology sought to identify how colonias are produced on both sides of the border. Specifically, it addressed the following areas: (1) the actors involved, and the processes of land and hous ing development; (2) the physical and social infrastructure providers, their responsibilities, actions, and impacts; (3) the wider politicaladministrative environment which shapes public and private responses and state-community interaction and liaison; and (4) the social and economic organizations of the populations themselves, selecting in each city two or three colonias for detailed survey and analysis. Several visits were made to each city by members of the research group, starting in November 1994 with a small number of the group making preliminary surveys of the city and reconnoitering possible case study colonias. The following January the full team (usually four students in each city) conducted the first round of fieldwork. This comprised semistructured (in-depth) interviews with private developers, publicsector officials, nongovernment organizations, community leaders and residents, service providers, politicians, and so on, in order to explore firsthand the processes and research questions identified above.

The spring semester 1995 was directed toward analyzing the materials in comparative perspective. Throughout the project groups were required to look across the border rather than up and down the border. The aim was to ensure that we did not fall into the trap of looking at the housing situation solely in Texas or in Mexico, and to develop instead a genuine cross-border perspective. Thus, while members of the group had a particular city case study to track, they also belonged to sectoral subgroups (land and housing, physical infrastructure, social and community organization), each being responsible for intensifying further the literature review for Mexico and Texas. A common research agenda for each of these systematic areas of study was developed in a cross-border context, and then applied to each city during fieldwork.

In order to sustain comparisons, further base documents were elaborated according to agreed frameworks for each city, so that by mid-March 1995 we had detailed annotated directories of the colonias phenomenon as well as for public- and private-sector responses for each city. The remainder of the semester involved group members moving back into their sectoral groups, each working with materials relating to all six case study cities, identifying the nature of housing processes and public policy initiatives in the Mexico-Texas border region. These analyses formed the basis of paper presentations at the May 1995 conference, and ultimately after many iterations, for the principal chapters of this book manuscript.

In parallel with this main research thrust during the spring was a subsidiary study which focused upon the Texas A&M-sponsored community centers, of which two were up and running (Cameron Park and El Cenizo) and a third (in Sparks, El Paso) was about to be inaugurated. At the request of the project sponsors the aim here was to offer an independent evaluation of the impact upon colonia populations that service providers were having through those centers. This involved further surveys by a small subgroup: the first being a sample of households interviewed in the settlements, while the second was a postal survey of the service providers themselves. This research also forms part of this volume (Chapter 5), as well as an earlier stand-alone internal report prepared for CfHUD.

Draft PRP chapter reports were edited by two members of the group during the summer of 1995, and these formed the basis for the author's elaboration and extension for this volume, most of which was undertaken during 1997. Each of the following chapters deals with one of the systematic aspects that had become the focus of our research agenda, and in most I provide a series of specific recommendations for action and for learning about the different elements of housing and community "production." In addition, I have prepared in Chapter 6 a brief synthesis of the broad conclusions and proposals for future policy actions, aimed specifically at the next two legislative sessions (1999 and 2001).

This study is unique insofar as it seeks to make a genuinely crossborder analysis of colonias. Although there are several excellent texts on border urban environments, I know of only one other study that seeks to look systematically at the intimate interconnections between border twin cities, and that is Staudt's (1998) volume, which examines informal activities in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, and which also discusses comparatively issues of colonia formation, street trading, governance, and state-society relations within two adjacent polities. Moreover, we still know all too little about the connections across borders—formal and informal—and even less about what might be termed the "spillover" effects of one side upon the other. Such spillover effects are more than economic and demographic; they occur in a variety of dimensions of daily life such as housing searches, land purchase, investments, health care, popular culture and language, and so on. And yet we seem to hold back from analyzing their two-way osmosis, preferring instead to look up and down the border, rather than analytically across it. While as academics we deny the significance of the boundary, arguing for a more regional approach, we still seem very fixed on one side or the other, with certain significant exceptions, such as trade and immigration flows.

While this book seeks to break with that mold, it does so in a way that continues to maintain an eye focused particularly upon policy recommendations and concerns for Texas and for local counties and cities along the border. This was because my principal concern was to improve the policy responsiveness in Texas, and because most of the lessons to be learned come from Mexico to Texas rather than the other way around. For that reason the primary conclusions drawn in this study look along the border, as well as back toward the political center—toward the state legislature and state housing agencies.

By looking at colonias in three Texas city locations, and by doing so in a cross-border context, I have been privileged to have the opportunity to be able to stand back and see the broader picture, rather than getting too drawn into the minutiae of case studies, or becoming too bogged down in the local institutional dynamics. While I firmly appreciate the need for a nuanced understanding both of the processes and of the policy-making constraints operative in particular locations, it also became quickly apparent that one of the principal barriers to effective action was the "balkanization" of public-sector responses, and the strong resistances born of turf and administrative rivalries between agencies, and sometimes between counties and cities. I hope that the comparative perspective adopted here has helped to free me, analytically at least, from such considerations and that this will have contributed to policy insights that may have general relevance.


An adviser on housing policy to the Mexican government and international development institutions, Peter M. Ward is the author of over a dozen books on urbanization and housing. He is a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and in the Sociology Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

"This will be a much debated book among local, state, and national politicians and government officials. It makes a significant contribution in the fields of urban development, environmental planning, comparative urbanization, and U.S.-Mexico border studies. The scholarship is impressive."

—Lawrence A. Herzog, Professor of City Planning, San Diego State University