MONTANA VISTA, Tex.—No one objected when developers bought up dusty vacant land here in the 1950s and 1960s and turned it into unincorporated subdivisions—areas outside city limits where no one had authority to enforce building standards.
Neither the state nor the county stepped in when the developers turned around and sold that land—making empty promises to later add running water and sewer systems—to low-income immigrants who wanted, more than anything, to own a home of their own. And no one batted an eyelash when low-income landowners in these unincorporated border subdivisions, called colonias, started building homes from scratch without building plans or codes, or when they started adding additions to those homes as their families grew, molding structures together with nails and extension cords and duct tape.
That’s because, in Texas, all of these actions were perfectly legal. Texas prides itself on its low taxes and lack of regulation, but it’s possible that decades of turning a blind eye to unregulated building is starting to catch up with the state. Today, around 500,000 people live in 2,294 colonias, and many still lack access to basic services, such as running water or sewer systems. Lots of residents live in dilapidated homes with shoddy plumbing and electrical wiring that they’ve cobbled together themselves to save money on contractors. And now, they want the state to pay to extend basic services in their homes. Water, for instance, should be a human right in America, they say.
“You have families that live in third world conditions in the state of Texas with a modern city just miles away,” said Veronica Escobar, the County Judge of El Paso, who functions as a county chief executive. “But the state of Texas has essentially put counties in charge of health, safety and welfare, at the same time they give us very limited authority.”