CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex.—Far from the Mexican border and just outside one of Texas’s major tourist destinations, with its popular nearby beach and bustling port, a string of shantytowns thrives.
Hidden behind acres of tall grain sorghum live some of the area’s poorest residents. They bought the only piece of the American dream they could afford: a patch of land with no running water and no sewage treatment or wastewater service. Their homes are modest, made of wood or vinyl siding. Some live in shacks made of scrap metal or in dilapidated trailers. The spring rains bring massive flooding to these low-lying areas and with that, contamination, disease and disruption of life.
Known as colonias, these developments have existed for years along the border with Mexico. Now they have migrated north, attracting not only new immigrants but also second- and third-generation Mexican Americans, and whites and blacks unable to find affordable housing elsewhere.
Dozens of the unregulated, rural subdivisions have sprung up deep into Texas, near Corpus Christi and outside Austin, Houston, Beaumont, San Antonio and as far north as Dallas and Fort Worth. Officials say unscrupulous developers take advantage of weak county laws to subdivide land and sell the plots with inadequate, if any, improvements. Over the past decade, Texas lawmakers have passed tough regulations on colonias near the border. With the squalid developments spreading, lawmakers are turning their attention to the rest of the state.
“This is just like Guatemala or Africa,” said Lionel Lopez, a retired Corpus Christi firefighter who organized the South Texas Colonia Initiative to bring attention to what he counts as 88 such developments in Nueces County. “You see kids with all kinds of sores on their little legs, and the dogs—they don’t even bark, and they have mange.”