El Paso County’s Self-Help Center: Improving lives in Five Colonias
By Joe Olvera (c), 2010
Going from working as a loan officer for a local bank, to becoming the Housing Coordinator for a Self-Help Center (SHC) in a colonia known as Agua Dulce, was an easy transition for Martha Arciniaga. “When I first started, the main goal was obtaining potable water for colonias in the Mission Valley,” Arciniaga said. “Now, however, our focus is in helping people with housing issues. Not only in Agua Dulce, but in four other colonias, including Lake Way, El Paso Hills, Horizon View, and Horizon View Estates.”
Colonias are impoverished areas in El Paso County, Texas located along the U.S.-Mexico Border that lack basic infrastructure such as water, sewer, electricity, natural gas, and roads. According to Arciniaga, the five colonias which encompass her responsibilities, there are some 250,000 low income residents who rely on her organization to help them with basic living and housing issues.
Known as the Miguel Teran Self-Help Center, located at 15371 Kentwood, the agency is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the tune of $1.2 million. The program came about in 1995, when the 74th Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 1509 to establish the Colonia Self-Help Centers in the Texas counties of Cameron/Willacy, Hidalgo, Starr, Webb, and El Paso. Five colonias are identified in each county to receive attention from the Self-Help Centers, including such objectives as providing on-site technical assistance to low and very low-income individuals in a variety of ways, including housing, community development activities, infrastructure improvements, outreach, and education.
Margarita Jauregui, a volunteer at the Agua Dulce SHC, said she has dedicated three years of her life to helping improve the housing conditiions of people in all five colonias. “There is a great need for people to receive this type of assistance,” Jauregui said. “Many residents don’t have adequate housing, and it’s important for them and their children to be able to live in safe and sanitary conditions. The majority of colonia residents are Spanish-speakers, many with very little education.”
Arciniaga said that she loves her job, especially when she sees that residents are becoming more aware of how to lobby for improvements to their neighborhoods. “I try to become part of the families that live in the colonias. I have the satisfaction of knowing that the families are becoming more eduacted and more aware of what’s out there that can help them. I see their children barely starting school, to seeing them graduate from high school. I’ve been doing this for 10 years now,” Arciniaga said. “I’ve been able to bring my skills as a mortgage loan officer to helping residents deal with such issues as title searches, insuring that there are no clouds in their applications, and educating them about having pride in their homes.”
Irene Valenzuela, a housing coordinator for the County of El Paso, said it’s a tough program in many ways, because the state sets rules and regulations by which residents in the colonias must abide. “The $1.2 million grant comes with conditions, which makes it impossible to help every single resident,” Valenzuela said said at a Tuesday meeting at the SHC. “However, we are able to help as many people as allowed by the state. For example, to qualify for the program that will help a home-owner improve his home, he or she must have owned the home for two years – that is, that they have a valid contract.
“Also, the state won’t allow us to repair mobile homes, as they allowed in the past. Also, some families will qualify, and others won’t. But, we ask those who didn’t qualify this time around, to not lose hope. We’ll keep trying to get them qualified so that they can have repairs done to their homes. At the same time, we will train them to do some of the repairs themselves. We will be working on other issues, as well.”
Arciniaga said that, to her, what she’s doing is a labor of love. Sometimes she must dip into her own pocket to provide paint and other necessities because the funding doesn’t go very far. “I have met such wonderful people working here. They are modest and hard-working, volunteering to help us maintain the grounds and so forth. Some of the kids move out, but, many of them return to this little colonia of Agua Dulce to raise their own families. That’s an indication that they’re willing to help the colonia grow in a positive way.”