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Texas bill would incentivize the formation of new colonias

Michael Trevino

Republican State Representative Ryan Guillen of Starr County has introduced a bill to weaken Texas law in place to stop the spread of colonias—border settlements with substandard infrastructure.

These laws, known as the Model Subdivision Rules, went into effect in the year 2000 and addressed some of the tactics responsible for the formation of colonias.

Now local officials and experts fear what will happen if Guillen’s bill passes.

“What I read really scared the hell out of me because you're trying to diddle with something that they shouldn't be messing with,” said Michael Blum., who helped write the Model Subdivision Rules back in 1987 when conditions in colonias were particularly dire.

Before these laws, landowners could legally subdivide their land and sell cheap lots to poor families without having to include any infrastructure

Without access to basic services, these communities faced unfathomable circumstances, like children having to tread through flood water contaminated with septic waste.

For people living in colonias, any substantial rainfall in the Rio Grande Valley is a menace.

The Model Subdivision Rules require that residential lots have or will have basic infrastructure before selling, but the bill changes that for many properties.

Under Guillen’s bill, properties don’t have to be connected to a water line before selling, rather the lot just has to be within a certain distance of one.

In this case, the burden and expense of accessing that water line is the buyer's problem.

Blum said this negates the point of existing regulations.

“That's not what the legislation was intended to do. It was intended that the lot gets a waterline, period. Developer, put it in,” he said.

Avoiding this requirement makes the property seem cheaper, which appeals to aspiring homeowners with financial constraints, but the cost of undertaking all of the infrastructure work is expensive.

For some buyers, this means delaying access to running water until they save up the funds.

The unofficial neighborhoods along the border count about a half-million residents. Many lack basic infrastructure and resources, like water.

Guillen presented the bill before the Land and Resource Management Committee, where he argued that abiding by the Model Subdivision Rules makes it too costly for some owners to sell their property.

At the hearing, representatives of Hidalgo and El Paso County – which have the most colonias in the nation – expressed their concerns.

In response, Guillen said he’s tweaking the bill but did not respond to Texas Public Radio’s request for the new version.

Supporters of the bill were all realtors and included Texas Realtors, an organization that has long pushed to roll back these laws.

“Why is the Texas Association of Realtors endorsing this legislation,” asked Blum. “I've been in the real estate business for 30 years. This is an abomination. For the association to be supporting something that’s not in the public interest.”

The bill also appears to absolve realtors of responsibility for selling plots without infrastructure.

In a letter to the committee chairman, Blum said it’s incomprehensible how the Texas Legislature or Texas realtors association would want to make it easier for the colonia developers in Texas to escape their obligations.

Texas Public Radio reached out to Texas realtors about concerns over the bills, and they said they're still working with the bill's author and it has not been finalized.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Border and Immigration News Desk, including the Catena Foundation and Texas Mutual Insurance Company.

Noah Durst, assistant professor in the School of Planning, Design and Construction’s Urban & Regional Planning Program at Michigan State University, has extensively studied the root causes of colonias.

He said the Model Subdivision Rules, while time and resource extensive, were largely successful at stopping colonias’ proliferation.

Guillen’s bill could undo this progress.

“The early drafts of this bill would walk back those restrictions, effectively transferring the responsibility for infrastructure from developers to buyers,” said Durst.

Currently, the Model Subdivision Rules only apply within 50 miles of the Texas-Mexico border and lots under ten acres. But Guillen’s proposal allows developers to circumvent those laws by changing criteria.

Under the bill, the Model Subdivision Rules will only apply to lots less than half an acre and, according to Durst, most home tracts are around this size.

If lots happen to be slightly bigger than half an acre and aren’t in a flood plain, sellers would be exempt from having to provide infrastructure.

Durst said this is what makes the bill incredibly concerning.

“This would lead to the widespread proliferation of subdivisions lacking basic infrastructure, and would recreate the economic and health consequences of colonia development from the 20th century,” he said.

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

Carolina Cuellar reports for Texas Public Radio from the city of McAllen where she covers business and border issues. Her position is made possible by Report For America — a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.