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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Colonia Life Has Improved, But These Border Communities Still Have Many Needs

Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas
A typical colonia dwelling along the Texas-Mexico border.

About half a million Texans live in what’s known as colonias. These communities pop up near the Texas-Mexico border and usually lack the basics, such paved roads, utilities and secure housing.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas just released a study that looks at life in colonia communities.

It was 1996 when the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas first released a report about living conditions in Texas colonias. A few years ago, researchers decided it was past time for an update. Jordana Barton is with the San Antonio branch of the Dallas Fed.

“It’s almost 20 years later and actually our report was still being cited, so we knew it was time to revisit the colonias and understand all the work that has been done and discover where we are now,” Barton says.

This study focused on the six Texas border counties with the highest concentration of colonias: El Paso, Maverick, Webb, Starr, Hidalgo and Cameron Counties.

There are currently close to 2,300 colonias in Texas. Just 10 years ago, 450 of them had zero infrastructure; no waste disposal, no drinking water, nothing.

This new report shows 286 additional colonias have all forms of infrastructure, from utilities to plumbing. Another 160 at least have waste disposal and water to drink. That’s progress, but some colonias still go without.

“For example, in Webb County, more than half of the colonias, there’s about 65 colonias, more than half of them, about 35, are without access to drinkable water,” says Barton.

Another problem is what researchers call the “new colonias.” These neighborhoods have platted lots and utilities but quite a bit of substandard housing; for example, a mobile home with a cinder block addition to accommodate a relative. These unconventional “hybrid homes” might help family members, but they come with a cost.

“Maybe their house isn’t up to code so they can’t hook up to the utilities, they can’t qualify,” Barton says. “They end of paying fines so they create a scarcity trap where people end up paying fines rather than putting money into their housing.”

Despite the poverty that runs through colonias, Barton says one social issue residents don’t have to worry about is homelessness.

“It’s because of the values of the culture to not let any family member be left out,” Barton says. “They’ll live two or three families in one home or family members will build on the same lot. In other words, colonia residents are innovative. They’re solving a potential homelessness problem.”

A reminder that the resilience of residents is reason for optimism, too.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.