Poverty and Pride

Arizona's poorest residents live in unregulated colonias--yet this type of meager rural existence may not even be sustainable

The air smells like a campfire that is burning with trash. The main-street dirt trail is blocked by a water-worn crater that could only be negotiated by an SUV. On the other side of the road waits the saddest, skinniest dog I've ever seen.

Someone has rigged a castle out of two halves of two different doublewides, both of them ancient. There are abandoned trailers from the 1960s on some lots, joining many more trailers that should probably be abandoned, but aren't.

However, here and there, there are a few nice, site-built homes, or newer manufactured bungalows, with obviously proud and tidy owners. Some of these homes have walls built around them; it's obvious the residents are trying to keep something out. Everybody else has a wire fence.

Here we are, in one of Southern Arizona's colonias.

That's not to say that most of the folks living in any of the 87 officially designated colonias in the Arizona borderlands would know that they are living in a colonia. Many residents of these urban-adjacent neighborhoods and unincorporated rural communities would say they're living in the great Arizona outback, on their own little piece of the wide-open American West. The term colonia--which is so imprecise as to be virtually meaningless (it simply means "neighborhood" in Spanish)--is nothing more than technocrat parlance, a way of suggesting that the border and all its attendant issues, problems and opportunities creates a unique kind of poverty on both sides of

the line.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Cranston-Gonzalez National Affordable Housing Act. In a signing statement, Bush wrote that one of the purposes of the act was to "advance opportunities for homeownership and economic self-sufficiency in our nation's most distressed communities." Thus began the colonia program (of which the former president's home state of Texas has been a major beneficiary), which is supposed to direct federal money to communities within 150 miles of the border that have significant water, sewer, housing and infrastructure problems.

Later, an amendment to the law required that the four border states--Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and California--allocate 10 percent of their annual Department of Housing and Urban Development-issued Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money to colonias.

Communities are responsible for designating themselves as colonias, using HUD's broad criteria. The agency defines a colonia as a "nonmetropolitan, unincorporated neighborhood or incorporated community within 150 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border that lacks sewer, water or decent housing, or a combination of all three."

Many Southern Arizona towns and communities have signed on to the program, and it has helped to expand water systems and fix floodplain issues in rural areas. It has even contributed to some self-help homebuilding projects.

It's important to recognize that these areas are not uniformly blighted, or even necessarily low-income. In Arizona, as in any other Western state that allows lot-splitting and wildcat development, one can often see a dilapidated pre-1970s mobile home on a scrubby half-acre sitting in the shadow of a $300,000 dream-retirement horse property.

The residents of colonias are as varied as are Arizonans in general--in economic status, ethnicity and all the rest of the indicators governments use to portray us.

However, there are generalities that can be made about the communities in Southern Arizona that have been designated colonias--first and foremost, these areas represent the most economically challenged non-reservation communities in the state. The reasons for this can be found in Arizona's economic history.

"Much of the poverty and deprivation of Southern Arizona and New Mexico is found in the regions' colonias," write Angela Donelson and Adrian Esparza in a recent book-length study of the colonias in the two border states, Colonias in Arizona and New Mexico: Border Poverty and Community Development Solutions (University of Arizona Press, 2008). Donelson, a Tucson-based consultant who used to work for HUD, knows more about Arizona's colonias than anyone else in the state, according to one HUD official to whom I spoke. She's been studying them for years; Colonias in Arizona and New Mexico is the only complete study of Arizona's colonias--and one of the best recent studies of rural poverty in the state.

In an interview, Donelson said that most people living in colonias are "hard-working and trying to make a life for themselves," yet they lack access to services most Americans take for granted. Her and Esparza's research has revealed that, as of 2005, residents of Arizona's colonias earned $8,700 less per person than the statewide average. Furthermore, working-age Arizonans living in colonias tend to support a greater number of dependents than the state average. And while some 77 percent of colonia residents own their own home, that home is generally worth only about 67 percent of the statewide average--and the homes in these areas tend to be at least five years older than the statewide average.

Homeownership is often the reason why people move to rural, wildcat developments in Arizona; as one planning official told me, pointing to a colonia neighborhood on a big map, "that's affordable housing in Pima County."

The names on HUD's list of Arizona colonias are both familiar and obscure. (For a list of some of these colonias, go to the HUD Web site.) Some, like Naco and Pirtleville in Cochise County, began as worker camps for migrant workers, and hang on today as low-to-moderate-income residential neighborhoods with few services and a housing stock that tends toward the unacceptable.

Then there's the sprawling Old Nogales colonia south of the Tucson International Airport. That area, a picture of which is on the cover of Donelson and Esparza's book, is a "classic colonia," said Carla Blackwell, deputy director of Pima County Development Services. The roads in the sprawling semi-rural wildcat development just off the Old Nogales Highway are nearly impassable; many residents get around on ATVs. Windblown trash litters the desert all around. Yet, planning officials told me, the area continues to grow, and--because of Arizona's liberal lot-splitting rules--there's not much that can be done to stop it other than to monitor the area closely.

Other colonias, like Nogales and Bisbee, are designated as such because they have a few neighborhoods that have infrastructure and housing issues. There are several colonias on the outskirts of Nogales that were built long ago in floodplains and are subject to flooding and other problems.

Arivaca, a tiny rural enclave about an hour southwest of Tucson that has long been a destination for recluses, hippies and New West runaways, is Southern Arizona's newest designated colonia. Members of the local water co-op applied to the program in hopes of getting money to back up and improve their small water company. In 2003, lightning took out the electricity for both of the co-op's wells, and at the time, they had no backup generators.

"Being a colonia gives us access to funds to keep this thing up, so five, 10 years down the road, there isn't some major problem," said Alex Huesler, a 40-something man with pigtails and a long goatee who is vice president of the water co-op.

Patti Jent, a small, easy-laughing woman with long white hair, runs a dollar store in Arivaca out of a 1950s adobe house. She donates several hours of her time every week, as do Huesler and co-op president Arienne Ellis, to make sure the small population of "artists, working-class families, snowbirds and senior citizens" has a reliable, clean water supply.

"I don't think people out here are trying to keep up with the Joneses," she said. "A lot of us out here are living debt-free."

This is not exactly the traditional view of an area in trouble.

"You can still see the stars," Jent said. "It's quiet; neighbors know each other and help each other out. ... You don't need a hiking trail--you just walk out your front door!"

Sounds like an ideal rural life. But is it sustainable?

Despite their many differences, all of the colonias in Arizona have a certain aesthetic in common, with dilapidated mobile homes mixed in with newer manufactured or site-built homes, and roads that are generally unpaved and can be impassable. All of them face the same somewhat gloomy future--the same future staring down at all of rural Arizona.

Rural Arizona, especially the rural borderlands, has never really recovered from the bad bets made by the first few generations of colonial money-men. We've never been able to develop a substitute for the boom-and-bust economies that helped get us statehood. As Donelson and Esparza put it, both Arizona and New Mexico, after achieving statehood in 1912, became increasingly dependent on agriculture and copper mining.

"This narrow economic base was fueled by federal investments and the government's demand for natural resources," they write. "Such artificial (not market-driven) supply and demand relationship propped up the regional economy temporarily but foretold of hard times to come."

Of course, in many rural areas, tourism stepped in to provide jobs, but only in those areas that could draw tourists--and the jobs were typically service-economy related and thus low-income. Still, once rural and now semi-rural towns like Sedona, Flagstaff and Prescott have been successful in drawing high-end homeowners, if not high-end jobs. Those three towns have the highest average home prices in the state, according to the Arizona Department of Housing's 2008 housing survey.

The survey finds that there are very few places in Arizona, rural or otherwise, in which retail or restaurant workers can afford to buy or rent on their own. This finding is based on what are called "affordability calculation assumptions"--that to live a decent, dignified life, one should not allocate more than 30 percent of one's income to housing. (Many of us, I imagine, are putting much more than that toward our sanctuary. I know I am.) HUD estimates that 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing.

It's even worse in rural areas, where opportunities don't exactly abound. Perhaps the most shocking numbers in the home survey are these: From 2000 to 2007, about 500,000 new jobs were created in Arizona; some 350,000 of those jobs, a full 87 percent, went to the state's urban areas. In six years' time, in the midst of a supposed boom, only 51,600 jobs went to rural areas in the state. Additionally, the report says, one out of every three new jobs during the period was low-wage: "Workers in these (service) industries, on average, do not make enough money to buy a median price house or rent an apartment as a single income earner."

It's a wonder there aren't colonias all over the state.

Meanwhile, there are questions as to whether the nearly 20-year-old colonia program has been effective. If its goal in the beginning was to stop new colonias from forming or to reform the worst of the existing colonias, that just hasn't happened, despite some successes.

But it's a tall order to go into a community that has been unplanned from the beginning and, well, start planning and retrofitting. One HUD official familiar with New Mexico colonias told me that $55 million was spent in one New Mexico community, and you couldn't even tell--it was all underground.

A recent audit of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) set-aside for colonias by HUD's Office of Inspector General found that the program has not been managed well in recent years.

The auditor said that HUD did not issue any regulations to states as to how to use the set-aside funds, and had no way to tell whether the program was working or not--or even where the money was going.

"HUD allowed the states to define colonias and determine how to distribute the funds," the audit says, adding that, as a result, "the states had different definitions of colonias and did not always prioritize funding to the colonias with the greatest needs as required"--even though that was supposed to be the point of the program in the first place, according to Bush's signing statement.

Between 2004 and 2007, the audit says, New Mexico and Arizona spent $8.4 million in colonia set-aside funds "for projects that did not meet the requirements of the act and did not meet the intended beneficiaries' basic health and safety needs." What's more, "HUD could not report on the progress or effect of the set-aside funds in meeting the colonia residents' needs regarding water, sewage, and housing."

When I called HUD's Arizona's headquarters to find out how the state's 10 percent set-aside was being spent, an official directed me to spokesman Jereon Brown in Washington, D.C. Brown told me that in 2008, Arizona received $11,793,037 in CDGB money. He also said that the 10 percent set-aside rule is now basically optional.

"I'm told that (the set-aside rule) has been modified and that currently the guidance is that it can be up to 10 percent," Brown wrote in an e-mail. "I'm also told that there are acceptable waivers."

HUD's auditor makes no mention of any changes to the set-aside program. If it is still in place, that means 10 percent of that $11 million should have gone to borderland colonias last year. That's more than a million dollars--not a lot, but nothing to sneeze at, either.

I spent the last several weeks driving around Southern Arizona, looking at colonias. And while they are largely livable places (certainly much more livable than their infamous cross-border counterparts, the NAFTA shanty towns on the edges of the maquiladora parks), not one of them looks like it has benefited from that extra million dollars.

In Picture Rocks, a sienna and white calf, a little wobbly but playful, runs along the wire fence inside the yard as I drive by on the deep-sand road, as if he were just another rural pup guarding the spread.

This sprawling, mostly wildcat development out in the desert west of Saguaro National Park West became a colonia around 2001. The local water company applied for the designation in an effort to expand and update its water infrastructure. They got the money and fixed the water system; it all worked well, said longtime resident and local water and fire board member Michael Lytle.

If there are any colonias that are transforming, as Kaitlin Meadows, president of a local community-advocacy group, put it, "from colonia to community." Picture Rocks is surely one of them.

It's not that Picture Rocks doesn't have the look of all those other colonias that Esparza and Donelson are studying; there are dozens of dilapidated, even dangerous old mobile homes dotting the land, and more than a few of them have been abandoned. The roads in some places are more like creek bottoms without the water.

But there's one very big difference out here: Meadows said that it's not unusual for 40 to 80 Picture Rocks residents to show up at the monthly meetings of Citizens for Picture Rocks. That's a feat in any neighborhood, colonia or not. A retired hospice nurse, Meadows said that the people out here have a "keen desire to lift ourselves out of old definitions of trailer trash and tweakerville."

Most of the people out here, she said, want to live a rural lifestyle.

"People in our area feel that the land itself has an intrinsic value because of its association with nature," she said. "I think what draws many people here is the opportunity to have some spaciousness around them. Being able to purchase the land and for a relatively small entry fee of purchasing a mobile home, whether new or used, you have entré to a much higher quality of life with many possibilities."

As we have seen, however, the rural lifestyle in Arizona, such as it is, is becoming harder and harder to justify. With few economic opportunities nearby, many rural Southern Arizonans have to travel long distances to make their daily bread. Last summer, when gas was nearing $4 a gallon, residents of Picture Rocks and other rural areas on the outskirts of Tucson got a bitter taste of what is likely to be a difficult future. Gas prices are expected to trend high in the long term; the same goes with food prices and utility costs. In the near future, living in a colonia, or any other rural enclave, is not going to get any easier.

Jaime De Zubeldia, a 34-year-old civil engineer and lifelong resident of the Picture Rocks area, is experimenting with methods that he hopes will help his neighbors head off this trend. He lives on a few acres out on the outskirts of the outskirts, in a doublewide set down bare on old agriculture land. The road you take to get to his spread isn't a road at all; it's more like a trail through the scrub. On this remote outpost, De Zubeldia is attempting to bring back to the mainstream a few age-old rural activities, in an effort to make colonias and other outbacks in Arizona more efficient: He's creating a "family-scale farm design project" that he calls ReZoNation.

"The goal here, at the most basic level, is to study what it will take for the average person with relatively little knowledge or background in agriculture, to regenerate soils back to a productive state in arid desert conditions using the least amount of energy in all forms--including fossil-fuel inputs," he told me when I visited his "farm."

He said that during the early 20th century, 60 percent of us lived a rural lifestyle, while about 40 percent of the population was involved in some form of food production. That's no longer the case, and it hasn't been for a long time. But if people are going to continue to live in spread out, car-centric, outskirts communities like Picture Rocks, food production may have to return to its central place in the rural lifestyle.

Scattered around De Zubeldia's property are tanks for collecting rainwater; a chicken coop holds a few dozen birds to make eggs, keep away the bugs and provide an occasional chicken dinner. He's building big planters with which he'll attempt to create "a low-energy small-scale agriculture model," for a typical rural property approximately 4.5 acres in size--all with an investment of $10,000 or less, he said.

His model is all about reducing debt, doing more with less and saving energy, he told me. It's in the experimental phase right now, but if he's successful, De Zubeldia could help change the current, unsustainable model of the Arizona rural lifestyle. "I believe this is creating homeland security at the most basic level," he noted in a follow-up e-mail, "and to think that economic cycles will always favor our current level of consumption and affluence is, at best, faith-based wishful thinking and irresponsible."

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