Sunday, December 5, 2010

Long Time No Blog

I've been ignoring a lot of the outside world the past few weeks in order to finish work for the microeconomics class I've been taking and apply to graduate school. Econ is done, grad school apps are really just getting started, so I'll probably be MIA for a while longer.

But I wanted to finally post a bit about the research trip I took to New Mexico and Texas about a month ago. I mentioned the U.S.-Mexico Border Colonias region a while back, and that's exactly where I went to do some interviews for a report I'm working on.

First I flew into El Paso, TX and got to hang out with my cousin and her husband during my downtime - I don't have any photos of the city itself, but it's a nice place as long as you don't accidentally drive into the border crossing area to Juarez which my cousin told me is easy to do and not so easy to get out of! I drove up to Las Cruces, NM where I saw a lot of this (try to ignore the little dots in all the photos, I need to fix them):



The Colonias

Subdivisions built by a local nonprofit we work with

Although most rural towns have trailer parks and neighborhoods with dilapidated housing, the colonias are entire towns made up of people living in such poor housing conditions.

After New Mexico I flew down to San Antonio, TX and drove about 100 miles towards the border. The particular county I visited has, as the county judge put it, "always been in a recession." Economic hardship is nothing new to this area - official unemployment numbers are over 15% and there are few jobs in the area. There have been some positive developments but the community is nowhere near becoming as prosperous as it once was during its agricultural peak.

The colonias in Texas are different than in New Mexico where the settlements can date back to the 1800s or earlier. In Texas many are new within the last 60 years as a result of developers illegally subdividing and selling land without infrastructure and often using the contract for deed system which allows the landowner to repossess the land after one late payment without going through the foreclosure process. Most residents are Hispanic (though not all, and most are here legally) who wanted to build their own homes and did so little by little - finding materials and adding on when they had the financial resources, so it's not uncommon to see mobile homes that were later added to, like this one.

A strange but not totally unusual site was a house like this:

next to one like this:

The local government and the office of USDA Rural Development along with local nonprofits have been working to get streets paved, and water and sewer installed. Here's a house Rural Development built, usually to replace an existing structure because it's easier to construct new rather than rehabilitate:

The going is slow and uphill to fix the problems inherent in the community - I was told that there isn't even decent housing for middle- and upper-income families which makes it difficult to attract professionals (teachers, doctors, etc) let alone new businesses.

My perspective on housing and regulations has definitely been altered from living in Nicaragua and visiting this region. Obviously it would be ideal for everyone to have a safe, healthy home. But by requiring building codes, many families cannot afford to build even a modest home and end up living in rental housing. So is it better for a family to live in a home that they are building themselves and are proud of, even if it doesn't meet code or for them to move into subsidized rental housing where they are not invested financially or emotionally? I have a story to share about that exact point but I'll leave it for another time. I guess what I'm getting at is that even issues like affordable housing are not black and white.