Helping 'Urban Colonias'

Give counties more power, Sam Biscoe tells a House committee

Urban counties should be given more rights to regulate what some have dubbed "urban colonias," said Travis Co. Judge Sam Biscoe as he testified last week before the House County Affairs Committee.

"Urban colonias" was a term coined by state Rep. Kevin Bailey (D-Houston) back in the early Nineties, when the former council aide-turned-lawmaker passed legislation to get Houston to pony up more than $200 million to push water and wastewater services out to unserved areas annexed into the city of Houston. But the Bayou City is not alone. At a hearing last week, the County Affairs took testimony on an interim charge to address what is broadly being called "substandard housing." Biscoe was on the witness list, telling lawmakers that the only tool the county currently has is to ticket unserved residents under county health regulations.

"From a regulatory perspective, it is difficult to enforce minimum standards because the persons against whom enforcement action would be taken simply do not possess the resources to comply," Biscoe told the committee. "For example, the issuance of a citation and imposition of a civil fine means little to a person who cannot pay." Not only that, but it's impossible to force people to stop using a septic system until it is repaired or replaced, especially when the residents are poor. Or, as Biscoe put it so delicately, "Residents are left with no realistic alternative to violating an injunctive order given the pressure to yield to such a basic biological function."

Travis County has had both successes and failures with urban colonias. The county helped Kennedy Ridge, east of Austin, secure three "sweat equity" state grants to push water and wastewater services. But the same grant strategy failed in Northridge Acres, near the Williamson Co. line, because residents, mistrustful of the county, refused to help lay the water pipeline.

County Affairs Chair Rep. Wayne Smith (R-Baytown), who just took over the committee last month (after the primary defeat of former Chair Glenn Lewis, D-Fort Worth), says it's too soon to determine just what to do. Biscoe has his own list of suggestions for the committee, recommending the state give subdivision regulation authority to urban counties that are similar to the border colonias program.

Biscoe also supports imposing criminal penalties for those who knowingly violate the applicable subdivision standards, applying newer, more stringent subdivision regulations to undeveloped areas of existing substandard subdivisions, and providing a time limit on building out approved subdivisions so that a less scrupulous developer doesn't come back later to a long-dormant subdivision plat and build out substandard housing.

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