Colonia (United States)
In the United States, colonias are unregulated settlements that began to emerge with the advent of informal housing. Colonias are considered semi-rural subdivisions of substandard housing lacking basic physical infrastructure, potable water, sanitary sewage, and adequate roads. Colonias are unincorporated, unregulated, substandard settlements that are burdened by the lack of environmental protection. Colonia communities do not have access to traditional homeownership financing methods and therefore consist of ramshackle housing units built incrementally with found material on expanses of undeveloped land. Colonias have a predominant Latino population where 85 percent of those Latinos under the age of 18 are United States citizens. The U.S. has viewed border communities as a place of lawlessness, poverty, backwardness, and ethnic difference. Despite the economic development, liberalization and intensification of trade, and strategic geographic location, the southern U.S. border is one of the poorest regions in the nation. Most cases have shown that these communities formed when unscrupulous land owners inappropriately subdivided rural lands, offered plots through a contract for deed, and made false promises that utilities would be installed.
The majority of these communities have no water infrastructures and lack wastewater or sewage services  Where sewer systems do exist there are no treatment plants in the area and untreated wastewater is dumped into arroyos and creeks that flow into the Rio Grande or the Gulf of Mexico.
More than 1,500 colonias are identified within the U.S., and almost all of them are found in Texas, though they also exist in Arizona, California and New Mexico. Evidence suggests that there are more than 1,800 designated colonias in the state of Texas, somewhere around 138 in New Mexico, about 77 in Arizona, and 32 in California. These settlements are part of an informal sector or informal economy that is not bound by the structures of government regulations within labor, tax, health and safety, land use and environmental, civil rights, and immigration laws.
Section 916 of the National Affordable Housing Act (NAHA) defines colonias as any "identifiable community" determined by objective criteria that include the lack of potable water and adequate sewage systems, the lack of decent, safe, and sanitary housing, and an existence before the passage of the Cranston-Gonzalez National Affordable Housing Act. According to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development the term colonias has a specific meaning within the U.S., referring to a community within the rural U.S.–Mexico border region with marginal conditions related to housing and infrastructure.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 History
- 3 Colonias by state
- 4 Characteristics
- 5 Public policy action
- 6 Advocacy groups
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Bibliography
- 10 External links
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. 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. Since these Hispanic neighborhoods were less affluent, the word also connoted poverty and substandard housing. In the 1990s, colonias became a common American English name for the slums that developed on both sides of the U.S.–Mexican border.
The history of the word colonias in the United States, and its interpretation through politics, suggests that places called colonias are not to be perceived as natural or prosperous communities. In many parts of Texas, Spanish-language terms are often used to frame and highlight class difference. The Term colonia is an essential symbol for public policy in the United States, and this Spanish name is a critical component for constructing public and policy attention on unregulated, unincorporated subdivisions with poor physical infrastructure. The Spanish language also underscores the settlements’ differences and labels them as racialized and distinct places, which has a powerful way of constructing and reinforcing marginality.
The force of globalization has affected the U.S.–Mexican border where communities like colonias exist. Globalization is the process of an increased involvement of the global economy that is becoming a standard from a fusion of factors such as technology, free trade, and mass migrations. Within this globalization came an increased informality of housing in the U.S. Colonias surfaced because of the border’s strategic location and trade liberalizations. People shifted from the traditional agricultural labor to work in transportation, construction, and manufacturing, which made room for colonias to grow at the borders. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1994, it began a processing of border transactions. Globalization has brought areas together such as the U.S.–Mexico border, where cultural proximity has benefited trade relations. The NAFTA is now promising to bring more economic activity to the U.S.–Mexican border to further develop the area and attract more residents.
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.” Due to the rise of the maquiladora industry in 1965, the border population quickly grew and created a housing shortage for these workers. 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. 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. Subsequently, these developers as well as hired realtors would section off the area and sell sections to individual buyers via contracts for deed; these deals, which sold unimproved lots, included undocumented and thus unenforceable promises to soon provide basic provisions such as water, sewage, and electricity. Because these deals lack a foreclosure period or buyer’s protection, this allows sellers to repossess and resell lots, as well as keep all payments the buyer had made until the buyer paid the property off in full and subsequently received the title. 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. This is when developers created subdivisions in unincorporated areas that had absolutely no value. Colonias were mostly invisible due to physical isolation and properties were divided into small lots, which would be bought by low-income families. When colonias were created, the sale of rural lands without basic housing policies was lawful. The colonia community then exploded in the 1990s where the number of residents almost doubled from 1990 to 1996. This can be subject to the passage of the NAFTA which industrialized the U.S.–Mexican border and created many jobs. This factor led to a need for cheap housing along the border region, which further sparked the growth of colonia communities. However, due to the lack of financial mobility, colonia residents face significant challenges escaping 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. The new standards provide a basis for safe and sanitary housing to alleviate the existing health risks in the area. These standards are necessary for economic development in colonias because unsafe infrastructures and lack of education/jobs inhibit their growth.
As of 2007, Texas had the largest concentration of people (approximately 400,000) living in over 2,000 colonias on the U.S. side of the border. New Mexico has the second largest, followed by Arizona and California. 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 U.S. 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. 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. However, those within the public that do recognize colonias and their living conditions view them as “border slums,” while scholars have since the 1990s described them as a “third world” within the United States. While poor living standards do persist in these areas, a positive side does exist for colonias and is often disregarded by media and policymakers. For the border region’s poor, colonias provide affordable housing and the opportunity to obtain the “American Dream” of owning a home. Some scholars have praised colonians for seeking the realization of this dream through self-help. Because of this, the informed public has begun urging policymakers to make decisions that will not eliminate colonias but instead both enhance the living conditions and promote the incremental approach as a housing strategy, stating that this informal housing option creates opportunity.
Colonias by state
Divergent state subdivision regulations have influenced the historic development of colonias. Independent historical accounts would be appropriate by state.
Colonias in Texas
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."
Colonias in New Mexico
In New Mexico, about 150 colonias have been qualified for colonia funding sources such as HUD, USDA, etc. In New Mexico, there are two types of colonias — one, small towns and the other, subdivisional 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 safe and clean housing that the colonias faced brought on the requirement of Section 916 of the National Affordable Housing Act of 1992, which was found useful to continue utilizing the descriptions as a method to evaluate whether 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 into four parcels without violating the law. Within a couple of years, landowners were then allowed to split their land into two 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”.
Colonias can be found in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. To this day residents are mostly Hispanic and about 65% of the colonia population were born in the United States. Overall, colonias consist of low-income communities with families that cannot afford goods in a formal economy. In a random survey by the Texas Department of State Health Services, it was found that half of the families make less than $834 a month. Unemployment is common in colonias as most people lack proper education. About 70% of colonia residents have not graduated from high school, which hampers their job mobility and suppresses wages. And since most people living in colonias are Hispanic, they lack English language skills that prevent them from seeking assistance. The unemployment rate for families in colonias is 18%. Neighboring cities, in comparison, have an 11% unemployment rate.
Furthermore, residents of colonias are paying on average, 58% of their income on housing. In comparison, a two-bedroom apartment in Albuquerque, New Mexico costs $830. This is only 20% of the average income in the U.S. Not only does colonia housing cost too much relative to the resident’s earnings, but the living conditions are also significantly worse.
Colonias lack all of the essential physical infrastructures and public services: clean water, sanitary sewage, and adequate roads. Most colonia housing does not meet construction standards and building codes. Houses are often built little by little and often start as shabby tents of wood and cardboard. Only 54% of colonia residents in Texas have sewer service and about 50% drink water from a non-tap source. Colonia residents buy their land on a contract for deed because they do not have enough to qualify for financing. This is when land ownership stays with the seller until the whole purchase is paid off. This land eventually ends up to be worthless as the market for colonia housing is very low. Most houses cannot even pass inspections to qualify for repairs and further improvements. The housing situation in Cameron County, Texas lacks certain infrastructure and requires $44 million to upgrade all of the homes. Financially, families living in colonias lack the assets to add improvements in order for sustainability.
Furthermore, these poor minority communities suffer the burden of hazardous waste facilities. These communities are prime targets for 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. These include landfills, power plants, and waste facilities which all have negative impacts on the communities lifelong health. The legal options available to colonia residents to fight the placement of these hazardous waste facilities are slim. Many are unaware of the public benefits available to them. Applying for these benefits is a struggle when extensive documentation and many visits to state offices are required. Ultimately, immigrants in the border region face language barriers and fear of retaliation against family members without any form of identification.
A recent pilot study intended to document the personal and socioenvironmental correlates to health-related quality of life within Mexican American adults living in colonias found that colonia residents are worse off in terms of physical health compared to the U.S. average. By examining Mexican-Americans residing in Hidalgo County, Texas in the Lower Rio Grande Valley near the U.S.–Mexican Border, investigators provide new knowledge for health professionals and policy makers in order to provide more effective preventive and medical services to underserved communities. The research provides statistical data and analysis as well as a discussion about the importance of a health-related quality of life. However, because the study is restricted to only Mexican American adults living in border colonias, further research is needed to substantiate these findings in a larger framework. As stated earlier this study is intended for health professionals and policy makers to focus on the need to provide preventive and medical services for underserved and underrepresented populations. Through this research investigators found that Mexican Americans living in colonias share similar mental health patterns compared to the U.S. average, but in terms of physical health they were worse off. Data collected through a household survey in 2002 and 2003 by the Integrated Health Outreach System Project (IHOS) was analyzed to describe the population in terms of sociodemographic status, HRQL, and other variables. In response to this survey 81% considered that access to health- care services was a problem; 62.5% mentioned housing; 76.5% perceived not having enough recreational and cultural activities; 86% perceived social issues; and 41.1% perceived physical environmental problems, specifically polluted air or water. In conclusion, the research provides significant data acknowledging health disparities colonia residents continuously face.
A report released on June 2010 by The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, claims there is enough data in the historical record that demonstrates a direct correlation between abated health outcomes, health disparities, and premature morbidity and mortality with ones zip code, which researchers have determined that for low-income and people of color can predetermine their life expectancy.
Alcohol use, anxiety, traumatic stress, and hopelessness
In a recent study, a community participatory model of a hundred Mexican origin colonia residents was used to investigate the relationship of alcohol use, acculturation, anxiety, hopelessness, and trauma. Investigators hypothesize that these symptoms are directly related to alcohol use disorders. Their results showed that participants who met the criteria for alcohol dependence showed more symptoms for anxiety and post-traumatic stress than the national average. Furthermore, investigators suggest that this study provides enough evidence to continue doing research as well as create awareness for future prevention and treatment programs that seek to improve the health of these individuals.
Investigators found that in Mexican American immigrants, lifetime prevalence for any anxiety disorder in men was 9% and 18% for women. For Mexican Americans born in the United States 27% of women and 20% of men met the criteria for anxiety disorders. Mexican Americans living in colonia have considerable health risks due to unsafe healthy living conditions, low educational attainment, high unemployment, comparatively high rates of the spread of communicable illness, lack of access to health care and poverty. Furthermore, a recent study found that people living in colonias had the highest rates of binge drinking and alcohol dependence correlated with anxiety, traumatic stress, and hopelessness.
In other studies, researchers have found that “people with low socioeconomic status (SES) have dramatically higher disease risks and shorter life spans” than wealthier people. Therefore, poor people have less access to health care and more incidents of harmful lifestyles associated with drinking, smoking, and obesity.
In nutritional research, investigators assess the experiences of child food insecurity and seasonal instability within Mexican origin mother-child dyads living U.S.–Mexico border colonias. By focusing on food insecurity, which is known for causing health effects across a lifespan, investigators seek to comprehend the effects of school-based and summertime nutrition programs amongst women and their children, specifically within Texas border colonias. An important attribute of this research was that the study depended on a multi-level analysis, which relied on repeated measurements. It also took into account the perceptions and experiences of children within the research.
According to research, food insecurity among Hispanic and Mexican-origin U.S. households exceeds national estimates (Nalty). Furthermore, research shows that in 2011, 26.2% of Hispanic families in the United States were food insecure, and households with child-food insecurity 17.4% were Hispanic.
Today environmental justice and food justice focus “beyond traditional notions of environmental or food issues to address issues of health, workers rights and working conditions, disparities regarding access to environmental and food goods, land use and respect for the land".
Research, decision-making, and childhood obesity
This subsection addresses childhood obesity in Mexican-American low-income communities through a qualitative research study that involved local decision makers in proposing policy recommendations addressing the issues of childhood obesity within communities like colonias. As a result, four policy ideas came about: 1) establishing sustainable community- based health programs; 2) improving neighborhood infrastructure and safety; 3) increasing access to parks; and 4) supporting community organizations to disseminate health education to parents and children. Overall, the purpose of bridging research with policy is to provide a knowledge transfer process that directs data to policy makers in order to address obesity and physical activity among low-income, Mexican children as well as analyze environmental policy recommendations.
According to Gottlieb, food issues “are particularly pronounced in low-income communities where lack of access to fresh, affordable healthy food has direct health and nutritional consequences”. He elaborates by saying, “Where we live—the environments around us—include such core factors as land use, transportation, housing, parking, and retail store locations. These are preeminently issues of the built environment, which are powerful food justice and environmental justice issues”. By adequately approaching these food justice and environmental justice issues, there is a greater chance of reducing health disparities among U.S.–Mexico border residents.
Public policy action
Rather than being illegal, colonias are considered “extra-legal,” in that they circumnavigate the law rather than violating it. In response to these systems, scholars are split between egalitarian and libertarian approaches. 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. However, supporters of the libertarian style favor the informality of this living system for providing an affordable housing option for those in need. These same scholars criticize government action to impose living standards without providing colonians with the resources to sustain them.
To date, the housing quality of colonias continues to be unregulated. As the social distance between the upper class and lower class expands, informality expands. Less opportunities are available to the uneducated and poor. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. However, Larson has proposed a policy of progressive realization where policies gradually extend standards in colonias. Incentives such as microcredit programs are being implemented which then allows families to reach acceptable levels of housing quality. The model addresses equality by setting a standard for housing based upon compliance of available resources. The Progressive realization model commits the government and people towards the common goal of sustainable housing. However, this does not mean that governments do not have obligations once a certain standard is reached. The progressive realization model requires continual progress so that communities like colonias realize and experience their full potential. This model is a relationship between law and society, and it directly corresponds to the choices of those living in colonias.
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. 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. Other definitions are used by specific governmental agencies. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. This limits all designated colonias in California to roughly the area of Imperial County.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
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. 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. 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. The Act is credited for inspiring other agencies to fund programs targeting development on the U.S.–Mexico Border, namely the EPA.
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. As is the case with BECC/NADB, critics have also claimed that the projects seeking to improve infrastructure have also been underwhelming. 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.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
The North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC) is an international environmental agreement between the governments of Canada, Mexico, and the United States. NAFTA sought to promote economic growth by lowering most of the existing barriers to trade. 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. In order to ensure that NAFTA would pass, the Clinton Administration pushed for NAAEC as a side agreement specifically to aid border environmental issues. 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. 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.
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. 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. However, BECC/NADB does not explicitly address the colonias themselves but rather the border, defining the border as areas in the U.S. “within 100 kilometers and the area in Mexico that is within 300 kilometers of the international boundary." BECC/NADB consists of a board comprising members from both the U.S. 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 U.S., 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. 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.
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. These programs have been criticized for failing to consider who will pay to maintain this infrastructure after the project is complete. Because BECC is not a regulatory agency, and it has no hard laws that must be abided by. 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.
Housing and community advocacy organizations such as the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (TxLIHIS), an affordable housing advocacy nonprofit organization, and the Colonias Development Council 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.
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