Colonia (United States)

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Near the U.S.-Mexico border, a colonia is a rural shantytown characterized by poor housing stock, inadequate physical infrastructure, and a weak social infrastructure. Colonias are a form of irregular, largely self-help housing settlement.[1]

Colonias are usually found in rural areas. Subdivisions are usually created out of cheap farmland. Usually it is not in a city's interest to annex a colonia because it would subsequently be required to provide city services such as water, electricity, and sewage; the tax revenue from annexed colonias would probably not cover the cost of installation and use of these services. Counties, under whose jurisdiction colonias tend to be, are usually not required to render such services.

In contrast to shantytowns in other parts of the world, most residents legally own the land on which they reside.


The Spanish word colonia means a 'colony' or 'community'; in Mexican Spanish, it is specifically a 'residential quarter (of a city)', and a colonia proletaria is a shantytown.[2] In Spanglish, the English-Spanish mix, colonia began to be used to refer primarily to Mexican neighborhoods about thirty years ago. A 1977 study uses the term "colonia" to describe rural desert settlements with inadequate infrastructure and unsafe housing stock.[3] Since these Hispanic neighborhoods were less affluent, the word also connoted poverty and substandard housing.[4] In the 1990s, colonias became a common American English name for the slums that developed on both sides of the U.S.–Mexican border.


Public works and utilities are frequently absent for a number of reasons. Lots are usually acquired informally: no subdivisions are recorded, financing is provided by the selling party (if the lots are sold, not squatted), and there is generally no community planning office involvement. Some settlements, particularly irregular settlements in Mexico, eventually acquire essential infrastructure as the government recognizes these settlements, utility companies invest, or residents pool sufficient money to purchase infrastructure for services themselves.


Colonias began in the state of Texas in the 1950s and 1960s as an informal housing solution for low-income predominantly Hispanic wage earners through a model referred to by scholars as the “incremental approach.”[5][6] Due to the rise of the maquiladora industry in 1965, the border population quickly grew and created a housing shortage for these workers.[7] The overlap of four variables attributed to the development of colonias: high demand from a population of low-income wage earners meeting a low supply of affordable housing, a supply of low-cost and fruitless land, the absence of regulations on the subdivision of that land, and a legal way for that land to be sold to individuals.[6] Land developers recognized the high demand and dire need of affordable housing and began purchasing this land in peri-urban areas where strict enforcement of housing and environmental laws was either nonexistent or weak.[7] Subsequently, these developers as well as hired realtors would section off the area and sell sections to individual buyers via contracts for deed[6]; these deals included undocumented and thus unenforceable promises to soon provide basic provisions such as water, sewage, and electricity.[8] As more dwellings and minimal infrastructure made an appearance, the initial cost of the land decreased. As such, colonias became an affordable and viable living option to low-income families on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Researchers traced the first colonias in Texas to the 1950s and early 1960s.[9] This is when developers created subdivisions in unincorporated areas that had absolutely no value. They were mostly invisible due to physical isolation. Properties were divided into small lots, which would be bought by low-income families. [9]To this day residents are mostly Hispanic and about 65% of the population was born in the United States. [9]The colonia community then exploded in the 1990s where the number of residents almost doubled from 1990 to 1996. [9] Colonia residents face significant challenges with the lack of financial mobility, in order to escape the colonia bubble. In the June of 1996, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs successfully obtained a waiver from HUD to set new housing standards for colonias.[10] The new standards provide a basis for safe and sanitary housing to alleviate the existing health risks in the area.

As of 2007, Texas has the largest concentration of people (approximately 400,000) living in over 2,000 colonias on the U.S. side of the border.[11] New Mexico has the second largest, followed by Arizona and California.[12] However, remote location and stealthy development characterize many colonias. It is therefore unlikely that an exact count is valid for an extended period of time. Despite the high count of individuals living in these areas, the severity of the living standards in colonias has yet to become common knowledge for US citizens. Scholars have found that little has been done to remedy the living standards of the colonians, as their situation has become normalized by the public and associated with the "lawlessness" of the U.S.-Mexico border region.[8] Although the Spanish word “colonia” literally translates to “neighborhood,” these settlements are hardly recognized as safe, friendly communities by those that know of their existence. Scholars have criticized the naming of these settlements as “colonias,” stating that the use of the Spanish word not only creates difficulties within the public policy sector of government, but also fosters the notion that these settlements are alien and not a part of this country.[8] However, those within the public that do recognize colonias and their living conditions view them as “border slums,”[13] while scholars have since the 1990s described them as a “third world” within the United States.[14]

Colonias by state[edit]

Divergent state subdivision regulations have influenced the historic development of colonias. Independent historical accounts would be appropriate by state.[15]

Colonias in Texas[edit]

Around the 1950s developers began creating subdivisions along the U.S.-Mexico border on agriculturally poor properties, divided land in small parcels, and provided few services; the development of the properties, intended for low income buyers, was the beginning of the Texas colonias. By 1995 the state passed laws against developing subdivisions without services. From 1995 and 2011, the office of the Texas Attorney General had 87 judgments against developers who created properties without services. The office of the Texas Attorney General said by 2011 that Texas had about 2,294 colonias and estimates that about 500,000 lived in the colonias. In Texas, Hidalgo County, as of 2011, has the largest number of colonias, though estimating their population is difficult: "Getting an accurate count of the population in any of" the state's colonias "is notoriously difficult, due to geographic isolation, shared addresses, swiftly changing development and mistrust of government data collectors."[16]

Colonias in New Mexico[edit]

In New Mexico, it has been found that there are about 150 colonias that have been identified as being qualified for colonia funding sources such as HUD, USDA, etc. In New Mexico there are two types of colonias, one is small towns and the other is sub divisional level colonias. Although many of New Mexico’s colonias consist of rural small towns, they were considered colonias because of the absence of resources. Conflicts with acceptable water, sewer, and/or safe and clean housing that the colonias would face, bought on the requirement of Section 916 of the National Affordable Housing Act of 1992, which was found useful to continue using the descriptions as a method to evaluate whether or not those colonias met the other requirements of Section 916. In New Mexico, land was sold contract for deed, however before 1990 New Mexicans were allowed to divide their property in 4 parcels without violating the law. Within a couple of years, land owner were than allowed to split their land in 2 parcels, but after some time the subdivision law was “amended to be applicable to land divisions into two or more parcels, thus closing the loophole utilized by colonia developers”.[17]


Sociology of Globalization[edit]

Colonias constantly face problems with the increased globalization in the world. The US-Mexican Border is most affected by this globalization where growth of colonias turned to informal housing as a survival strategy. People shifted from the traditional agricultural labor to work in transportation, construction, and manufacturing which made room for colonias to grow at the borders.[18] As technology is constantly improving, less and less unskilled workers are required to work which makes colonias such an attractive housing option. In these times, the government cut back on social welfare spending which restricted programs for affordable housing.[18] Colonias are structural responses to this globalization and the diminishing wages for labor. Policies of trade liberalization and the border’s strategic location create an economy of low-wage work that has attracted many migrants. [18]

Economy of Colonias[edit]

Since colonias consist of low-income communities, families cannot afford goods in a formal economy. [19] The average household income in colonias is about $3,000 lower than the average household income of the U.S. In a random survey by the Texas Department of State Health Services, it was founded that half of the families make less than $834 a month. [9]The unemployment rate for families in colonias is 18% compared to neighboring cities with a 11% unemployment rate. [9]This leads them to supporting a parallel economy of street vendors and flea markets. [19] And since most people living in colonias are Hispanic, they lack English language skills that prevent them from seeking assistance. Unemployment is popular in colonias as most people lack the necessary education. About 70% of colonia residents have not graduated from high school, which hampers their job mobility and suppresses wages. [9]

“Progressive Realization” model (Informality, Illegality, Inequality)[edit]

As the social distance between the upper class and lower class expands, informality expands.[20] Less opportunities are available to the uneducated and poor. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Most colonia residents buy their land on a contract for deed because they do not have enough to qualify for financing. [9] This is when land ownership stays with the seller until the whole purchase is paid off. [9] This land eventually ends up to be worthless as the market for colonia housing is very low. To date, the housing quality of colonias continues to be unregulated. However, Larson has proposed a policy of progressive realization where policies gradually extend standards in colonias. [20] Incentives such as microcredit programs are being implemented which then allows families to reach acceptable levels of housing quality. [20]

Infrastructure of Housing[edit]

Colonias lack all of the essential physical infrastructures and public services: clean water, sanitary sewage, and adequate roads.[9] Houses are often built little by little and often start as shabby tents of wood and cardboard. [9] Only 54% of colonia residents in Texas have sewer service and about 50% drink water from a non-tap source. [9] Most houses cannot even pass inspections to qualify for repairs and further improvements. Owners always add their own improvements and rarely use builders because of their economic status. The housing situation in Cameron County, Texas lacks certain infrastructure and requires $44 million to upgrade all of the homes. [9] Financially, families living in colonias lack the assets to add improvements in order for sustainability. Fortunately in 1995, colonia legislation prohibited developers from selling homes without wastewater treatment. [9]

Housing Issues[edit]

Colonias are known to make housing affordable for the poor. However, families living in colonias are still paying on average, 58% of their income on housing.[18] An average two-bedroom apartment in Albuquerque, New Mexico costs $830. [21] That is about 20% of the average income in the U.S. Furthermore, without a clean title many families put their life savings into houses that cannot be easily sold. [22]Because of the legal uncertainty that accompanies informality, colonias housing are uninvestable. [22]It is hard to resell their homes for more unlike middle class homes, which raise in price. Not only does colonia housing cost too much in perspective to the resident’s earnings, but also the living conditions are significantly worse.

Environmental Injustices/ Cumulative Impacts[edit]

Minority communities usually bear more of a burden of hazardous waste facilities. Low income, rural communities are prime targets for placement of environmentally hazardous facilities because of their inability to fight back and file lawsuits. Most of these undesirable facilities are located within a 10 mile radius in some of New Mexico’s colonias.[20] These include landfills, power plants, waste facilities, etc which all have negative impacts on the communities life-long health. Furthermore the legal options available to colonia residents against the placement of these hazardous waste facilities are slim. First off, many are unaware of the public benefits they are qualified for that may be extremely helpful. Applying for public benefits is then a struggle when extensive documentation and many visits to state offices are required.[20] Immigrants then face extra barriers like language barriers and fear of retaliation against family members without any form of identification. [20]

Public policy action[edit]

Rather than being illegal, colonias are considered “extra-legal,” in that they circumnavigate the law rather than violating it.[5] In response to these systems, scholars are split between egalitarian and libertarian approaches.[8][5] Those that support the egalitarian approach believe that colonias currently substantiate a notion of inferiority for those that dwell there, and in response they propose standards of living enforced by government regulation.[8] However, supporters of the libertarian style favor the informality of this living system for providing an affordable housing option for those in need.[5] These same scholars criticize government action to impose living standards without providing colonians with the resources to sustain them.[5]

Enhancing the lives of the colonians through policy has proven to be difficult and slow. Funding for infrastructure projects for colonias is contingent on the criteria that exist for determining a settlement to be a “colonia,” and establishing effective criteria has proved to be a challenge.[6] The Farm Housing provisions of the United States Code define a colonia as a community that (1) is in the state of Arizona, California, New Mexico, or Texas; (2) is within 150 miles (240 km) of the U.S.-Mexico border, except for any metropolitan area exceeding one million people; (3) on the basis of objective criteria, lacks adequate sewage systems and lacks decent, safe, and sanitary housing; and (4) existed as a colonia before November 28, 1990.[23] Other definitions are used by specific governmental agencies.[24] Many scholars criticize the existing federal criteria as being too broad in that most definitions of colonias are based on the archetype that exists on the border in Texas. [6] While colonias in Texas are known for being peri-urban settlements with mostly Hispanic dwellers, settlements in California are located in old rural towns with ethnically diverse populations. [6] This has proven to hinder colonia infrastructure development in California. Criteria have also been described as too narrow, relying on numeric values to determine whether a settlement qualifies.[6] Under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), funds designated within the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) were to benefit colonias along the U.S.-Mexico border, defined by various numeric values.[6] However, colonias such as those in Riverside and San Diego counties are disqualified from the CBDG for being metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with over a million people.[6] Similarly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture limits its colonias to settlements of no more than 20,000 residents, disqualifying the majority of communities seeking funding in California.[6] The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of colonias derives from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which limits these colonias to a 62 mile distance from the border.[6] This limits all designated colonias in California to roughly the area of Imperial County.


U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development[edit]

The Crantston-Gonzalez National Affordable Housing Act of 1990 was created to help families that did not own homes make down-payments for purchasing homes, expand on the supply of affordable housing for low-income families, and promote cooperation between all levels of government and the private sector in the expansion of that supply.[25] The Act is considered one of the most important policies relating to colonias for setting aside funds from the Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG) to go direct towards enhancing the living standards in the colonias, as well as bringing to the public an awareness of colonias in other bordering states, namely California, Arizona, and New Mexico.[6] The set aside funds that come from the CDBG are used to help improve the lives of colonians, particularly regarding potable water, sewer systems, or sanitary housing.[26] The Act is credited for inspiring other agencies to fund programs targeting development on the U.S.-Mexico Border, namely the EPA.[13]

Critics of the HUD’s colonias efforts have stated that HUD’s focus has been on preventing the development of colonias rather than seeking to provide those of low-income with a bigger supply of affordable housing.[13] As is the case with BECC/NADB, critics have also claimed that the projects seeking to improve infrastructure have also been underwhelming.[13] Scholars have urged the HUD to make use of its ability to work with the private sector by encouraging private investment in the direct development of the current colonias. Rather than eliminating the colonias, many have proposed to instead have the private sector to create better dwellings at low costs within the area while also improving the already established dwellings within colonias.[7]

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency[edit]

The North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC) is an international environmental agreement between the governments of Canada, Mexico, and the United States.[27] NAFTA sought to promote economic growth by lowering most of the existing barriers to trade.[7] While many advocates of NAFTA argued that it would indirectly increase the standard of living and thus environmental spending on the border, many critics commented on the fact that only a single sentence in the agreement’s preamble addressed the environmental impacts of promoting free trade.[7] In order to ensure that NAFTA would pass, the Clinton Administration pushed for NAAEC as a side agreement specifically to aid border environmental issues.[7] From NAAEC came the creation of the Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC), an institution providing a forum for environmental law enforcement disputes to be resolved.[7] Scholars generally agree that the NAAEC’s diction is ambiguous and does not clearly define the authority that the organization has; it is also unclear whether violators are obligated to respond to inquiries made by the CEC, and thus few parties have actually been investigated and punished for failing to cooperate.[7]

The charter creating the Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC) and North American Development Bank (NADB) was the first multinational agreement to address the problems faced by colonians.[7] These two institutions were created to resolve are those that revolving around include land contamination and sustainable water/wastewater infrastructure and compensate for CEC's shortcomings.[28] However, BECC/NADB does not explicitly address the colonias themselves but rather the border, defining the border as areas in the US “within 100 kilometers and the area in Mexico that is within 300 kilometers of the international boundary."[29] BECC/NADB consists of a board comprising members from both the US and Mexican governments, and thus lies equally within the jurisdiction of each nation’s government; this includes the Administrator for EPA and the Secretaries of State and Treasury from the US, and the Secretaries for the Environment and Natural Resources, Treasury, and External Relations from Mexico, as well as one state representative and non-governmental organization from each country.[30] The BECC certifies projects that meet criteria in order to receive funding from the NADB. Projects can be proposed by anyone; in doing this, the BECC/NADB seek to promote public participation in sustainably developing the U.S.-Mexico border.[31]

Though the programs have been praised as revolutionary, critics have said progress is slow with NADB; within a year of its creation, it was criticized for failing to fund a single infrastructure project, despite the approval of several projects by BECC.[7] These programs have been criticized for failing to consider who will pay to maintain this infrastructure after the project is complete.[7] Because BECC is not a regulatory agency, and it has no hard laws that must be abided by.[31] Critics of BECC/NADB have suggested the implementation of "stick" measures to complement the current "carrot" measures currently in place, including punitive measures such as monetary penalties.[7]

Advocacy groups[edit]

Housing and community advocacy organizations such as the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (TxLIHIS), an affordable housing advocacy nonprofit organization,[32] and the Colonias Development Council[33] in New Mexico, work to alleviate poverty in colonias by promoting self-help housing programs that provide colonia residents with resources to build their own homes, fostering community empowerment and raising public awareness.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ward, Peter M. 1989. A Critique of Self-Help Housing.
  2. ^ Collins Spanish-English Dictionary, online, s.v.
  3. ^ Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs. 1997. Colonia Housing and Infrastructure 1 "Current Characteristics and Future Needs"; 2 "Water and Wastewater"; Policy Research Report no. 124; vol 3, Regulatory Issues and Policy Analysis. Austin: University of Texas.
  4. ^ 404
  5. ^ a b c d e Larson, Jane E. "Informality, Illegality, and Inequality." Yale Law & Policy Review 20.1 (2002): 137-82. Print.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Mukhija, Vinit; Monkkonen, Paavo (January 2006). "Federal colonias policy in California: Too broad and too narrow". Housing Policy Debate 17 (4): 755–780. doi:10.1080/10511482.2006.9521589. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Hanna, David L. "Third World Texas: NAFTA, State Law, and Environmental Problems Facing Texas Colonias." . Mary's LJ 27 (1995): 871.
  8. ^ a b c d e Delgado, Richard. "Rodrigo's Twelfth Chronicle: The Problem of the Shanty."Geo. LJ 85 (1996): 667.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Cisneros, Ariel. "Texas Colonias." Housing and Infrastructure Issues. Dallas Fed, June 2001. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.
  10. ^ "Colonia Housing Standards (CHS)." Colonia Housing Standards. Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.
  11. ^ "Colonias FAQ's (Frequently Asked Questions)," Texas Secretary of State.
  12. ^ "Designated Colonias in New Mexico," Homes and Communities United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.
  13. ^ a b c d Mukhija, V., & Monkkonen, P. (2007). What’s in a name? A critique of ‘colonias’ in the United States. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 31(2), 475-488.
  14. ^ Rios, Jo Marie, and Pamela S. Meyer. "Community building and public health in a South Texas Colonia." National Civic Review 95.4 (2006): 54-57.
  15. ^ Simmons, Nancy. 1997. “Memories and Miracles; Housing the Rural Poor along the United States-Mexico Border: A Comparative Discussion of Colonia Formation in El Paso County, Texas and Doña Ana County, New Mexico.” New Mexico Law Review. 27: 33-75.
  16. ^ Grinberg, Emmanuella, "Impoverished border town grows from shacks into community". CNN. July 8, 2011. Retrieved on July 9, 2011.
  17. ^ "U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development". Retrieved February 14, 2014. 
  18. ^ a b c d Cesar, Rodriguez A., and Boaventura De Sousa Santos. Law and Globalization from Below: Towards a Cosmopolitan Legality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.
  19. ^ a b "Rodrigo's Twelth Chronicle." The Problem of the Shanty (Georgetown Law Journal) 85.667 (1996-1997): n. pag. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
  20. ^ a b c d e f "Legal Issues in New Mexico's Colonias Report." Environemntal Justice Issues (2010): 33-38. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
  21. ^ "Albuquerque NM MSA Average Apartment Rental Rates." Albuquerque, 2014.
  22. ^ a b Larson, Jane E. "Informality, Illegality, and Inequality." Yale Law & Policy Review 20.1 (2002): 137-82. Print.
  23. ^ 42 U.S.C. § 1479 (f)(8)
  24. ^ Texas Code, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, United States Department of Agriculture[page needed]
  25. ^ Warren, G. (1990). Lamont, Summary of Cranston-Gonzalez National Affordable Housing Act. Housing and Development Reporter, 580-609.
  26. ^ "State Community Development Block Grant: COLONIAS". Retrieved 18 April 2014. 
  27. ^ Canada, Mexico, and the United States of America. Agreement Concerning the Establishment of a Border Environment Cooperation Commission and a North American Development Bank. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
  28. ^ Carter, Nicole, and Leonard Ortolano. "Working Toward Sustainable Water and Wastewater Infrastructure in the US‐Mexico Border Region: A Perspective on BECC and NADBank." International Journal of Water Resources Development 16.4 (2000): 691-708. Print.
  29. ^ "Eligibility Requirements." BECC: Border Environment Cooperation Commission. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.
  30. ^ "BECC-NADBank | International Programs."". Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 12 March 2014. 
  31. ^ a b "Certification Criteria". Border Environment Cooperation Commission. Retrieved 12 March 2014. 
  32. ^ Home
  33. ^ Colonias Development Council - Welcome / Concilio para el Desarrollo de las Colonias - Bienvenidos


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  • Ward, Peter M. 2005. "The Lack of Cursive Thinking in Social Theory and Public Policy: Four Decades of Marginality and Rationality in the So-Called 'Slum.'" in Rethinking Development in Latin America. ed B. Roberts and C. Wood. University Park, PA: Penn State U Press 271-296.
  • Ward, Peter M. 2007. "Colonias, Informal Homestead Subdivisions, and Self-Help Care for the Elderly Among Mexican Populations in the United States." in The Health of Aging Hispanics; The Mexican-Origin Population. Ed. Jacqueline L Angel and Keith E Whitfield. New York: Springer. 141-162.
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  • Ward, Peter M. and Paul A. Peters. 2007. "Self-Help Housing and Informal Homesteading in Peri-Urban America: Settlement Identification Using Digital Imagery and GIS." Habitat International 31:205-218.
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  • Ward, Peter M., Flavio de Souza, and Cecilia Guisti. 2004. "'Colonia' Land Housing Market Performance and the Impact of Lot Title Regularization in Texas." Urban Studies 41:13:2621-2646.
  • Ward, Peter ed. 1982. Self-Help Housing: A Critique. London: Mansell Press.
  • Ward, Peter. 2004. "Informality of Housing Production at the Urban-Rural Interface: the Not-So-Strange Case of Colonias in the U.S., Texas, the Border and Beyond." in Urban Informality, ed. Anaya Roy and Nezar AlSayyad 243-270. Berkeley, California: Lexington Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
  • Wilson R. and Menzies P 1997. The colonias water bill: communities demanding change.
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Additional sources[edit]

  • Pepin, Madeleine, "Texas Colonias: An Environmental Justice Case Study" [1]
  • Huntoon, Laura and Becker, Barbara, 2001, "Colonias in Arizona: A Changing Definition with Changing Location" [2]

External links[edit]