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Ear to the Ground

Residents of New Mexico Suffer Under Unregulated Housing Market

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Posted on Apr 12, 2014
(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In a chilling report on “New Mexico’s Badlands” published in In These Times, writer Joseph Sorrentino sketches life in the “colonias” of Pajarito Mesa, a desert area 10 miles from Albuquerque and home to 1,200 to 1,500 people struggling against real estate predation and an absence of basic services.

Sorrentino’s subjects—many of whom are Spanish-speaking immigrants, a number of them undocumented—are people seeking the American dream: the ability to own and live off their own land and the freedom that comes with that. In Mesa’s unregulated real estate market, the dream looks like cinder block homes, rundown trailers and RVs entirely detached from electrical and water grids. (Since water became available at a nearby station in 2010, residents no longer have to drive to Albuquerque.)

The cheap land brings people in droves, but it also brings those seeking to prey on them. These predators sell the residents land they do not own. One couple with three children lost thousands of dollars and what they thought was their new home and the costly improvements they had made to it after it was revealed that the person who sold the property did not have the right to do so. That person had bought the property but stopped making payments in a technically legal practice called a “wraparound.” “Wraps” are fairly common in the colonias. Sorrentino writes, “It’s when a person is buying land—doesn’t own it yet, doesn’t have title to it—and decides to sell all or part of it, often using the money from the sale to pay off their own debt.” The swindler has so far evaded contact.

Another account features a Spanish-speaking couple who relied upon a seller to interpret their contract and were deprived of the land and the money they paid for it after they missed a payment.

Families living in the colonias have trouble getting loans because of their conspicuous poverty and lack of a credit history. Residents often have no choice but to make backdoor deals with sellers who attract buyers with low upfront costs that balloon into disasters once high payments kick in or a payment is missed.

Added to the trouble is the fact that county officials don’t want new residents. Many evictions cite Mesa’s lack of infrastructure as the cause. The land has only two legal roads, which complicates transportation for emergency response services. In situations where people do not have septic tanks, they create alternatives themselves. Some dig holes. Others “crap in a bag and burn it.”

As you might imagine, caseworkers are in short supply. Applicants can take many trips to see a caseworker or other public servant, and language and legal status can get in the way. Furthermore, colonias aren’t limited to New Mexico. Texas is home to over 2,294 such communities, according to its secretary of state, Nandita Berry. Texas has passed some residential regulation that New Mexico lacks, but the conditions are often just as abysmal and unemployment among residents in such communities is more than eight times what it is for other residents of the state.

In New Mexico, a glimmer of hope seems to come from a task force formed by the state Senate in 2013. No action is planned on the task force’s recommendations this year, however.

An extensive report titled “Legal Issues in New Mexico’s Colonia Communities,” published in 2010, can be read here. Read Sorrentino’s full article in In These Times here.

—Posted by Donald Kaufman.

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