(The Center Square) – In response to several groups claiming a residential development in Liberty County is a colonia and an “illegal alien settlement,” Hispanic Americans living there told The Center Square they feel unfairly targeted. They did so after The Center Square first reported that the development, roughly one hour north of Houston, isn’t statutorily designated as a colonia.
Confusion still exists about what a colonia is, according to questions being raised on social media and in the local news.
According to the Office of the Attorney General, “Colonias are substandard housing developments, often found along the Texas-Mexico border, where residents lack basic services such as drinking water, sewage treatment, and paved roads. The State of Texas has undertaken a number of programs to remedy the conditions in existing colonias and to prevent new colonias, including authorizing enforcement lawsuits.” The AG’s office also “created and maintains an extensive Colonia Geographic Database for the border region,” identifying 16 border counties and 13 adjacent counties to them.
The legislature began addressing substandard housing areas in 1989 and first created the Economically Distressed Areas Program (EDAP) as a way to assist local governments with providing water and sewer facilities in these areas. By 2000, the Texas Water Development Board adopted new rules to ensure adequate water supply and sewer service would be provided in new residential developments.
State statutes regulating these areas apply to border counties where colonias have been identified and to counties where a political subdivision has received funding under the EDAP, the OAG explains.
The Texas Commission of Environmental Quality also enforces some regulations pertaining to colonias. In 2013, it posted an infographic with a color-coded map identifying 41 counties. It highlights six border counties having the greatest number of colonias: El Paso, Maverick, Webb, Starr, Hidalgo and Cameron.
The TCEQ infographic explains that at the time, 400,000 people lived in over 2,300 colonias, including in Harris County, the most populous county in Texas. Notably, two Panhandle counties of Briscoe and Hall and three east Texas counties of Marion, Sabine and Newton are identified on the map.
Colonias have existed along the U.S-Mexico border for decades – in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. However, Texas has the majority of them because Texas shares the largest border with Mexico.
Colonias in Texas were first identified in the 1950s. It would take nearly 40 years for the legislature to enact regulations to govern them. In 1989, the 71st Texas Legislature passed SB 2, which required counties to adopt rules for subdivisions to provide water and sewage services. It also passed Senate Joint Resolution 5, which voters approved, to authorize taxpayer-funded grants to be awarded to economically distressed areas.
In 1999, the 76th Texas Legislature passed SB 1421, which created the Director of Colonia Initiatives and designated six representatives to serve in counties with the greatest colonia populations. In 2005, the 79th Texas Legislature passed SB 827 to create the Colonia Classification System to track state-funded colonia improvement projects.
In 2007, the 80th Texas Legislature passed SJR 20 and SB 99, which expanded the work of SB 827 and continued grant funding. By 2010, counties with the largest colonia populations began seeing improvements “thanks to state, federal and local funding,” TCEQ says.
Most recently, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have said the legislature would hold hearings to respond to allegations about Colony Ridge. Its CEO, John Harris, has said its subdivisions have been approved by the county and are not colonias.
“The residents enjoy concrete streets, public water, sewer, electricity, natural gas, cable TV and high-speed Internet. The community is governed by a property owners association with a presence in the neighborhood,” he told The Center Square.
While Colony Ridge doesn’t build homes, “there are several builders with model homes in the neighborhood and over 1,000 acres of commercial land available,” Harris said.
In the 1950s, land was divided into small lots with no infrastructure and sold to low-income individuals along the border, the Dallas Fed explains. Homes were primarily built in “agriculturally valueless land, land that lay in floodplains or other rural properties,” according to a 1996 Dallas Fed report, the first of several it published on colonias.
The fed notes that providing high-quality education to children living in colonias was “a major challenge” because of “high student drop-out rates, irregular student attendance and the border’s rapid population growth.”
By contrast, Colony Ridge has “donated land for new schools including, three trilingual charter schools,” Harris said. Additionally, “Colony Ridge companies and their customers paid over $40 million in property tax in Liberty County in 2022. Our development has added billions in additional tax base to Liberty County. In fact, we’ve provided so much in new tax revenue that Liberty County’s Commissioners’ Court was able to lower its citizens’ tax burden a few weeks ago.
“All of our subdivision plats, roads and other infrastructure are built to code and approved by county engineering teams.” The company has also improved local infrastructure and brought new businesses to the area, including a new bank.
Harris has invited members of the legislature to tour Colony Ridge properties this week in response to what he said were “ongoing false media narratives and false statements being perpetrated by out-of-state media outlets, politicians, and special interest groups.”