Building on the Strength of “Colonia” Communities
When an unexpected freeze devastated the citrus crop in 1990, many migrant farm workers in the Rio Grande Valley found themselves jobless and unable to support their families. This area of Texas — Hidalgo, Starr, Webb and Willasy counties — has one of the highest concentrations of migrant families in the United States. With over 500,000 families living in “colonias,” isolated communities of the rural poor living along the Texas-Mexico border, the valley took the hit hard.
Proyecto Azteca, founded in 1991 in response to the crisis, took an unusual tack. “Colonias have been isolated for so long and the problems are so big that no one ever really looked at the issue of housing,” says David Arizmendi, one of the founders of Proyecto Azteca, which began as an extension of the United Farm Workers’ community service. “But when a family has adequate housing, that creates stability. Then you can begin to work on health care and education.”
Reaching the Most Vulnerable Families
Proyecto Azteca reaches those families at the bottom of the economic ladder — families with incomes that put them outside of the traditional homeownership market. They cannot qualify for virtually any housing assistance programs because traditional lenders are unwilling to take a chance on families with so few resources. As a result, many colonia families build their own homes, often one room at a time using materials salvaged from abandoned structures. With most homes lacking indoor plumbing or other utility connections, Proyecto Azteca is bringing high-quality housing construction to migrant families in the Rio Grande Valley.
The cornerstone of Proyecto Azteca’s housing development work is its Self-Help New Construction Program. Beginning with just two houses the first year, Proyecto Azteca now works with families to build about 100 homes per year. A kit house — typically a 24 ft. by 36 ft., three-bedroom, one-bath unit — is delivered to the site. Construction trainers provide technical assistance for foundations and utilities, but families average a total of 550 hours in sweat equity to complete their homes. The cost to families averages $13,500, and loan payments are between $50 and $100 a month.
“Families have to do their own part to improve their lives, and that requires some sacrifices,” says Arizmendi, who notes that farm workers also serve on Proyecto Azteca’s board of directors. “We do not give people houses. We provide families with the opportunity to build their own home.”
Home Ownership Is Just the Beginning
“It is a special feeling to see my own house made from the bottom up,” says Victor Rodriquez, who moved his family of nine into their own home last year. “I had a hand in building it, and that creates a connection to it that others don’t have.”
Home ownership is just one step in connecting colonia families to the economic mainstream. Proyecto Azteca also operates four community centers, where families find education programs, social services, citizenship classes and free tax preparation. In addition to home mortgages, the Azteca Community Loan Fund makes micro loans so colonia parents can start or expand a business to give their families greater economic stability.
To improve his business, selling clothes at flea markets and garage sales, Rodriquez used a micro loan to buy a pick-up truck so he did not have to pay someone else to haul the shrink-wrapped bundles of used clothes he buys from local warehouses. “I looked at loans from a bank, but I didn’t think I would qualify. And the payments were too high,” says Rodriquez. “The impact on my business is immense. The payments are low so we can use our money to pay bills and save a little.”
Proyecto Azteca’s loans have helped a cabinet maker buy a table saw, an upholsterer buy a specialized sewing machine and a fruit and vegetable seller purchase a trailer to bring his produce to market. “When we help a family have greater capacity, that increases services to the community,” says Arizmendi. “The investment is small, but the payoffs are enormous.”