Photo: Rancho Vista
Luz Almendarez lines the inside walls of her faded pink mobile home with old family photographs and images honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe. Visitors to her Rancho Vista trailer home are greeted with a flourishing herb garden, and her love of cooking is obvious, with dozens of pots piled in her kitchen and utensils hanging above the sink.
But underneath the 34-year-old mother’s memories and religious icons are molding walls and peeling wallpaper. While she has plenty of cookware, most pieces are crusted with old food, with large black flies buzzing around looking for scraps. Her home’s wood floorboards are swollen from moisture and her ceiling is starting to fall in. Mildew crawls up her bathtub and shower and her wooden cabinets and doors have rotted. The two bedrooms are popping at the seams – clothes pour out of closets and mattresses are shoved into the corners with barely any room to step.
Almendarez, with thick brown hair pulled loosely from her face and tired eyes, shares this 500-sqaure-foot trailer with her husband, two sons and parents.
“They need a lot of help,” said Ruby Roa, a volunteer community organizer who translated Almendarez’s timid words from Spanish to English.
Three years ago, Almendarez and her family moved to the cramped, dilapidated trailer in Rancho Vista, located just six miles east of San Marcos on the other side of Interstate 35, after they were forced to leave San Marcos because urban developers wanted to turn their rented property into a restaurant. Her husband bought the ¾ acre of land on Fir Street for $35,000 because his parents already lived in the neighborhood.
He works construction jobs four days a week in San Marcos and made $19,000 last year, and the family struggles to pay their household and medical bills. Almendarez and her two sons are barely getting over bronchitis, and while her children rely on the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program, her husband’s employee health insurance barely covers his and Almendarez’s basic medical needs.
Almendarez – hesitant and embarrassed at first to share her family’s story – knows her home needs work, but as winter approaches her two biggest worries are no gas heating and a broken septic tank.
When the septic tank is full – and that happens often with six people living with one bathroom – her husband pumps the water and sewage himself to empty it. Almendarez explains that when her family first moved in, they noticed a crack in the tank along the top, but it appeared to be working fine. Now, she says, water and sewage leak from the top.
Almendarez isn’t the only resident living in substandard conditions in Rancho Vista, a community located near the Hays and Guadalupe County line. The subdivision, an outgrowth of hyperactive and haphazard land development in San Marcos and also across Texas over the last several decades, is a patchwork of 361 lots with 1,000 homesteads on them – sometimes families will pile two or three mobile homes on one lot – and an estimated 3,500 people living there. The meager roads are cratered with potholes and mobile homes are clearly in need of repair. Some of the lawns are littered with old lawn ornaments.
Rancho Vista and its neighboring Redwood are what experts and housing advocates call non-border colonias, unincorporated shantytowns located in rural parts of counties with poor roads, inadequate utility and wastewater services and destitute housing conditions. While most colonias are concentrated along the impoverished Texas-Mexico border, an estimated hundreds of such communities pepper the rural Texas countryside, anywhere from the open Panhandle and west Texas regions to near the major metropolitan areas of Austin, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas.
“Almost every rural or suburban county these days can point to an example or to at least those that began to develop in the 80s and 90s when the manufactured housing industry took heavy root across the state and as people were desperate for low cost housing options,” said Jeff Barton, a Hays County Commissioner whose county saw some of the most careless development that led to shoddy subdivisions.
A “Blind Eye” on poor development
The more than 1,000 border colonias were so destitute that residents, mostly immigrant Hispanic families from Mexico seeking cheap land, were and still are living without running water or sewage systems. Raw waste soaks the land, causing severe public health problems and unlivable housing situations. These trailer-park looking plots of land were finally addressed by Texas legislators in the 1980s when, after a national news story detailing poverty in modern-day Texas embarrassed the state, they passed laws halting the development of the colonias and created water utility and public health programs to mitigate the situation.
While significant strides were made to alleviate the problem on the border, housing advocates argue that state leaders turned a blind eye on the inadequate subdivisions popping up around major cities and fast-growing counties. People are still living with raw sewage and in rotting homes, and in Rancho Vista’s case, hard by Texas’ capital.
“We’re a very strong land-rights state and that kind of rhetoric infused the discussions at the legislature,” Barton said. “There were legislators that saw [shoddy development] happening and tried to fix it, big city ones that didn’t because it was outside their jurisdiction, rural legislators that didn’t because [their counties] weren’t growing, and then we had ones with strong property rights views” who supported land developers.
Because of a local government code loophole and conflicting statute language, Texas developers have been allowed to purchase, subdivide and then sell plots of land under minimum, if any, infrastructure requirements. And housing experts point to a pivotal court case to explain why.
In the 1990s, Elgin Bank of Texas purchased a 150-acre plot of land in Travis County and planned to subdivide it without county approval of a plat, which is a blueprint detailing each plot and any roads or streets within the subdivision. Travis County officials countered Elgin Bank, reading the local government code to mean that any developer needed a county’s approval before subdividing land within its extraterritorial jurisdiction – the land located outside a city’s limits but still under county authority.
Elgin Bank, citing a different chapter of the local government code, argued that developers only needed to have their plat approved if the plan met two stipulations – the land would be designated for public use and new roads would be installed.
Soon, Elgin Bank and Travis County found themselves in court disputing the word “and” in the written law. Initially, the judge ruled in favor of Travis County, citing old legislation that made it illegal to purchase and subdivide land without proper utility and sewage infrastructure.
However, in support of the developers’ interest and age-old Texas property rights, the courts overturned their initial decision, ruling in favor of Elgin Bank in 1997. Counties statewide were virtually stripped of their power to require plat approval from their developers, essentially opening the window for shoddy subdivisions that didn’t meet sewage or infrastructure standards.
“This was a horrific, short-sighted court decision by an ideologically charged appeals court,” Barton recalled. Almost immediately after the Elgin Bank debacle, Barton had to sit back and allow developers to create “unforgivable” subdivisions without access to roads or adequate water and waste services. Without roads, county fire and emergency respondents couldn’t get to the residents living in rural Hays County. Driveways were haphazard and developers installed broken or shoddy septic tanks. Barton remembers one development that had so much raw sewage seeping through the soil and stagnant rainwater that he called in emergency public health officials to clean up the area. “It was a nightmare, it was exactly the kind of thing we predicted,” he said.
By tradition, Texas cities and municipalities are granted more regulatory and zoning authority than counties. Legislators and lobbyists have worked for years to remedy the effects of the Elgin Bank case, slowly changing statute language and advocating for more subdivision oversight. A bill passed in 1999 closed the Elgin Bank loophole and gave counties slightly more authority over future developments.
The problem is, housing advocates and experts say, the law can’t be applied retroactively.
“The issue is we have people who have sold lots with no infrastructure, and it is very expensive to get it out there,” said former Texas State Representative Sherri Greenberg. “We should have the infrastructure first and then put houses on the lots.”
Greenberg worked on a number of bills related to county development and shantytowns during her legislative terms in the 1990s. Even prior to Elgin Bank, Greenberg drafted a bill giving counties the authority to require basic infrastructure, sewage systems and roads before a developer sold any lots to consumers. While backed by rural farmers and other interest groups, the bill was not passed. “It’s something you can get support for from more [people] than you think,” she said.
Such poorly developed communities and a lack of oversight can also be blamed on the urbanization of suburban Texas. Over the last several decades, counties that were traditionally rural with few residents and little commercial development existed without the bureaucracy or infrastructure to handle such rapid growth. Counties like Travis, Hays and others in the west Texas region weren’t adequately prepared for the influx of land developers or residents, and therefore didn’t have the resources to regulate them.
“As Austin [and other cities] boom, people move to cheaper land and sometimes it results in substandard developments,” said Paul Sugg with the Texas Association of Counties. “Most builders build and sell a good product; it’s always the outliers who try and cut corners.”
Unlike Almendarez, Paula Cordero, 64, chose to move to Rancho Vista from San Marcos for its tranquility and small nature. She and her husband bought their 1973 white trailer 30 years ago. Cordero, who has lived alone for the last three years after losing her husband, used to work in San Marcos. Diagnosed with epilepsy when she was in her 20s, she’s no longer able to work because of seizures and receives $524 a month in Social Security.
Cordero decorates her modest but relatively comfortable mobile home with rooster statues and old family photographs. She takes extra effort to keep her home clean, but mold covers the ceiling and her wallpaper is peeling. A bright orange extension cord runs through her living room because only a few electrical outlets work. Her stove doesn’t work and she hasn’t had a gas heater in three years.
She said that her husband used to take care of home repairs, but since his death she’s living on barely enough money to get by every month. Still, even though her mobile home needs severe repairs, she’s happy where she is.
“I’d rather have my trailer repaired than have a house,” she said.
Residents have many reasons for living in communities like Rancho Vista or other shantytowns. Many are like Almendarez, whose family couldn’t afford anything within city limits and had no other option but to move there. Others are like Cordero, who want to live in a secluded part of their county away from a city’s hustle and bustle. Communities can exist with limited resources like Rancho Vista with old trailers and roads with potholes, while others have new two-story homes and manicured lawns. Some communities also serve as a safe place for working undocumented immigrants to live quietly, a reality that angers some anti-immigration proponents.
“For some people, options are very limited,” said Karen Paup with Texas Low Income Housing Information Services. “Some of the people who live out there are the same people who live in the suburbs and are families who want a safe place for their children.” Meanwhile, though, a lot of people are tricked by developers into buying a cheap piece of land, but then are left to repair shoddy infrastructure or install their own.
“Some people buy into something that’s going to take a lot more money to repair,” said Don Lee with the Texas Conference of Urban Counties. “People don’t realize they’re moving into substandard conditions.”
Because counties have limited authority and little financial resources to help people in these communities, it’s essentially up to the residents to band together and get themselves some help, or rely on their neighbors’ good hearts.
Pressure on developers
Counties do have some options in addressing problems left by careless developers. They just have to be willing to put a bit of pressure on them and challenge the prevalent property-rights-come-first attitude.
One of the most financially feasible options lies with the Texas Water Development Board, which allocates money to counties willing to make specific demands of their developers.
The board distributes state-funded grants through the Economically Distressed Area Program to counties that adopt their Model Subdivision Rules, which require a developer to determine a water and sewage plan upfront, whether that be connecting to an existing utility system or installing wells and septic tanks so that people don’t end up without basic facilities. Under these rules, the developers must have the infrastructure in place before they can sell the land to a consumer, or post a bond to cover the cost.
“It’s not safe, not healthy and not good public policy to let people buy these lots, move in and not have enough money to provide adequate facilities for themselves,” ///said Joe Reynolds, attorney for the Texas Water Development Board. “Then we wind up with too many houses in a small space, shoddy and unhealthy facilities and increased health risks.”
Mandated by the state legislature to adopt these rules, the 25 border counties have been able to repair roads and install working utilities in their colonias. Non-border counties and now cities have the option to adopt the rules, and subsequently receive grant money from the water development board. As of this year, 34 non-border counties and 64 cities have adopted the rules, and some have pending utility projects thanks to newly acquired grant money. The number of counties adopting the rules is growing slowly, but some still give priority to their developers’ interests.
“They [counties] like to think they’re on top of the situation,” Reynolds said. “That works well in affluent cities – with nice homes they want good septic tanks, and people that have money make sure everything is done properly.”
Developers argue the Model Subdivision Rules impose too great a financial strain, especially installing septic tanks before anyone has purchased the land. On the border, septic tanks may cost a developer $2,000 per tank. But, away from the border, septic tanks can cost upward of $10,000 each – because of differences ground composition and more expensive utilities. With 50 or more plots in the works, developers don’t want to pay some $500,000 for utilities before they’re sure anyone will use them right away.
The idea of Model Subdivision Rules, said Lee, “was a wild notion because it puts the responsibility on the developer. But it’s viewed by the development community as a stronger medicine than is necessary for their neck of the woods.”
While some counties scoff at the idea of forcing such regulations on their thriving developer communities, others like Hays County have detailed plat requirements and oversight over theirs.
“It is sometimes necessary to retrofit because it’s the right thing to do not only for people who live there but people in community; it’s challenging, costly, politically divisive,” Reynolds said. Hays County’s rules, he adds “are also under attack from people who don’t remember the problems originally created and now question the rules and that they’re telling them what to. There’s a different between onerous regulation and smart regulation.”
And then there are those cities that are just being good neighbors.
Northridge Acres is a destitute trailer community located on the Travis and Williamson county line, and for years residents didn’t have running water. When did they get it? After a few residents tried but failed to get the attention of both the city of Austin and Travis County, the city of Round Rock reached out to residents. City manager Jim Nuse said Round Rock couldn’t stand by while its neighbors lived without water, so the city council voted to allow Northridge Acres to hook a hose up to one of the city’s fire hydrants.
“The people didn’t have money to put together a project or the skills to negotiate good solutions,” Nuse said. “There’s no one with direct responsibility but when there are people in substandard health conditions, it requires someone to step in on their behalf.”
Hope for Rancho Vista
While Rancho Vista didn’t have a good-hearted neighbor like Northridge Acres, it does have Texas Low Income Housing and students from the University of Texas on its side. Paup, Roa and a group of UT environmental law clinic students have been working in the subdivision for almost seven years helping residents to organize and apply for state-funded grants for home and utility repairs.
After countless interviews, community meetings with the county commissioner and surveys of trailers, Paup, Roa and UT were able to get Rancho Vista and Redwood approved for a grant that funded 24 new septic tanks for its residents, and another one is on its way. Cordero is already reaping the benefits of her new septic tank, while Almendarez is first on the list to receive a new one once their second grant is approved.
“We’ve been dealing with the health issues brought on by poor septic tanks,” Paup said. “Now we’re on to housing conditions.”
Over the last few years, Rancho Vista residents have learned valuable community development issues from Roa, who after retiring from Austin Energy 11 years ago has devoted her life to low-income housing issues in Austin and the surrounding areas. With the help of Paup and UT students, Roa has taught Rancho Vista to stand up for their rights as landowners and homeowners and how to plan meetings, make agendas and share their stories for their county commissioner.
With 13 community leaders, the residents are in the process of forming a non-profit neighborhood group to better establish themselves when applying for grants and other programs.
Over the last several years, Roa has spent hours talking to Rancho Vista families in English and Spanish, touring their homes and getting them help. The San Antonio native can point out every homestead, who lives there and their personal stories.
“Within the next 10 years, some of these families will have a new house and I won’t be there anymore,” Roa said. “I love to go there because they’re so hungry to learn; they have the willingness to improve their community.”