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Preventing the spread of colonias

Q: My parents recently bought a lot in a development near the border. They were promised that water and sewer hookups would be installed soon, but nothing has been done. Many of the houses in the area are ramshackle. My parents have since found out that the area was not legally subdivided. To whom do we report this? Is there anything that can be done?

A: As Attorney General, I have made it a priority to stop the proliferation of colonias along the Texas-Mexico border. Colonias are usually housing developments in unincorporated areas that can include substandard dwellings that lack basic services. It is common for colonias to lack water, electricity, sewage lines, garbage pickup and paved roads. These conditions lend themselves to the development of third-world diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria.

In addition, many families who purchase land in these areas to build their homes find their dreams turned into nightmares. Often, consumers like your parents purchase lots in an area believing that it is legally subdivided only to find out, too late, that it isn’t.

During the 1999 Legislative Session, the Legislature strengthened a law that applies to residential subdivisions in border-area counties.
The law requires all subdivisions outside city limits to comply with state development standards. Subdividers must provide drinking water, sewer service, good drainage, and roads that meet county standards. Developers are not permitted to sell property if it lacks running water and sewage treatment, unless they have provided financial guarantees that the services will be provided by a specific date.

My office is working to halt the spread of these areas and to take action against unscrupulous developers who take hard-working Texans’ money. In July, we obtained final judgement against two Hidalgo County developers for violations of Texas anti-colonias laws. They are required to provide water hookups and septic systems for all the lots, and to correct drainage problems.

The developers have also been ordered to pay a $75,000 civil penalty and $55,000 in attorneys’ fees.

There are several ways to report possible colonia developments. First, you can contact the county officials where your parents’ property is located. Both the county attorney and the county planning department may be able to provide assistance. If the developer can be found, the county can sue to force the developer to file a proper subdivision plat and provide required services.

Second, you can contact investigators within my office who focus on colonia issues. One investigator, Rudy Villareal, is located in our McAllen field office, which can be reached at (956) 682-4547, extension 111.

Another, Don Gutierrez, works in the Natural Resources Division of our Austin headquarters.
You can reach that office at (800) 252-8011. You can also file a consumer complaint through our office by calling (800) 621-0508.

My office is primarily responsible for assuring that the laws regarding land development, lots sales, and utility connections are enforced. But other agencies are available to help colonia residents. A variety of state and federal programs provide funding to secure water and sewer services for older colonias. More information is available through the Secretary of State’s office, which coordinates colonia initiatives that involve state and local programs and officials. You can contact the colonia initiatives office of the Secretary of State at (512) 463-8948. That office can provide referrals to regional ombudsmen who work in the counties with large colonia populations.

The ombudsmen provide referrals to several state-funded, self-help centers that provide assistance to colonia residents.

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs also has a new program that offers low-interest loans to colonia residents.

For more information on this program and other services, contact the Office of Colonia Initiatives at (800) 462-4251.

Thank you for reporting this problem. We appreciate your willingness to help. The sooner officials know about colonia-like developments, the sooner we can take action to protect property owners.