TUCSON—Just a few miles south of Tucson’s city limits, in the middle of mesquite and creosote rolling desert, a pocket of poverty is growing quickly and quietly.
The neighborhood known as Old Nogales Highway Colonia is a thick cluster of manufactured homes plopped down in a desert area with dirt roads, no sewer or water lines, sidewalks or streetlights. Some of the homes, unbeknownst to the residents, sit in floodplains or near a wash with the capacity to carry water as swift as a locomotive.
On some rainy, muddy days, children can’t get out go to school and parents miss work.
The lack of planning or basic infrastructure in the neighborhood has prompted the federal government to designate the neighborhood a colonia, a development unique to the U.S.-Mexican border region. In hopes of receiving federal funding, local governments in Arizona, have identified about 80 colonias, poor neighborhoods within 150 miles of the border lacking critical infrastructure.
Despite its problems, the Old Nogales Highway neighborhood is expanding rapidly, local officials say, in large part because of a state law that allows landowners to subdivide their property up to five times with relatively little scrutiny, without ensuring that there are basic services, such as an adequate water supply as required with larger subdivisions.
“Someone made money off of the land but created a neighborhood that didn’t come with the streets, didn’t come with the sewers, didn’t come with the other infrastructures that normally exist in a development,” said Ramón Valadez, a Pima County supervisor and former state legislator. He estimated the cost of bringing in utilities and upgrading roads at “tens of millions” of dollars.
Since the early 1990s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has offered funds to neighborhoods designated as colonias. They have to meet certain criteria, such as being in an unincorporated area and lacking in basic services such as electricity or water.
Arizona’s colonias are scattered across the southern portion of the state, from a trailer park that borders one of the richest neighborhoods in Yuma County to ramshackle settlements in Cochise County in the east, and they’ve even sprouted up on the fringes of unincorporated Maricopa County.
The Old Nogales Highway Colonia seemed to take root in a rural, sparsely populated neighborhood that had only 43 housing units in the 1940s.
By the 1990s, when the federal government first started offering funding to neighborhoods designated as colonias, Old Nogales was in the midst of a boom. The population grew from 922 in 1990 to 3,450 in 2000, according to a study of U.S. census records done by University of Arizona graduate planning students in 2003.
In less than a decade, from 1997 to 2006, the number of parcels in the Old Nogales Highway Colonia grew 120 percent, to 1,107 parcels from 503, according to Pima County records.
The neighborhood was built without being fully plotted or mapped. Some roads run through properties. Other properties sit in flood plains, near washes that are impassible. The dirt roads are worn and rutted, and local residents complain of losing tires, including one woman who said four on her van blew in a week. Instead of paying for garbage service, some have taken to burning their own trash, sending plumes of black smoke into the air.
Water is brought in by suppliers, and most homes have septic systems for sewer.
Tasha and Juan Hernandez watched the growth from their mobile home in the northern portion of the neighborhood. They bought nine years ago, happy to own their own land to start a family, far from the city. Then, Tasha said, the growth started all around them, mobile home after mobile home, getting closer and closer.
“It was just like popcorn,” she said. “It just grew like crazy out here.”
On days when it rains, the dirt roads wash out, and the school buses don’t come in to pick up the children. The last time it flooded, Brenda Coronado missed a day at work cleaning homes because she couldn’t get past the swollen washes. Her children had to wade through water to get to get to the road, since the bus driver wouldn’t go through the swollen washes.