Economic and Environmental Sustainability Through Community Development in Rancho Vista

Elizabeth Fenner
JD Candidate
School of Law
emfenner@gmail.com

Background

The University of Texas Law School’s Community Development Clinic is harnessing the legal knowledge and skills of faculty and students to promote sustainability in Rancho Vista, a low-income community outside San Marcos, Texas. Community development works toward achieving economic sustainability and addressing the needs of lower-income neighborhoods. Those areas are commonly plagued by problems, as described by Ronald F. Ferguson and William T. Dickens in their book Urban Problems and Community Development:

Housing in the same neighborhoods is often old and difficult to maintain…Informal neighborhood social ties and the capacity for collective problem solving are underdeveloped. Further, residents are disproportionately isolated from informal networks that carry information about good economic opportunities. This isolation helps to perpetuate joblessness, financial insecurity, and undesirable living arrangements… Communities where all these conditions coexist are in danger of becoming more and more isolated from the mainstream of society.1

Accordingly, community development is work that “produces assets that improve the quality of life for neighborhood residents.”2 Community development works through “capacity building both inside and outside neighborhood boundaries for such things as employment, shopping, schooling (or even future
housing), as long as members of the neighborhood benefit individually or collectively.”3 The assets produced through community development work are of five forms: physical capital in the form of buildings, tools, and so forth; intellectual and human capital in the form of skills, knowledge, and confidence; social capital—norms, shared understandings, trust, and other factors that make relationships feasible and productive; financial capital (in standard forms); and political capital, which provides the capacity to exert political influence.4 Those assets allow neighborhood residents to improve living conditions and to develop the skills and influence to sustain them.

Addressing pressing economic needs in a low-income community can easily become the focus of efforts to improve communities to the exclusion of environmentally sustainable efforts. Creating new jobs and fixing up dilapidated homes have a community impact that can be felt immediately, whereas environmental improvements may appear less tangible with delayed benefits to a community where residents are struggling to keep a safe roof over their heads. But through educating community members about the relationship between environmental and economic conditions, pursuing both goals can lead to even more beneficial achievements simultaneously. Indeed, the two goals can support each other, and pursuit of one goal need not exclude the other.

As discussed in the following sections, over the past five years, the UT Law School’s Community Development Clinic has collaborated and worked closely with other UT programs to assist the low-income residents of the Rancho Vista community on an array of initiatives. This work has generated a model of community development work that advances both economic and environmental sustainability and that should be considered in the future in any community in which those goals appear at first to be in tension.

Economic and Environmental Issues in Rancho Vista

The need for community development is particularly evident in the context of colonias and colonia-style living situations in Texas, of which the Rancho Vista community is one example. The community is plagued by many of the problems Ferguson and Dickens highlight as ripe for improvement through community development work.

Rancho Vista and its adjoining community, Redwood, are located in Guadalupe County and home to almost 1,000 families or 3,600 people. The population of these two areas is almost exclusively Hisupic and includes a large number of young to middle-aged adults with multiple elementary school-aged children. Compared to the rest of the county, the community is much poorer and contains greater levels of overcrowding. The large majority—about 75%—of households have one or two members in paid employment, and one-third report a monthly household income between $2,000 and $3,000. Approximately 60% of households have a monthly income of less than $2,000.5

Most of the homes are owner- occupied, manufactured homes. Satellite images of the community taken within the last five years show that the number of housing units exceeds the number of lots. The images also show a decrease in new lot occupancy and a rise in housing structures over that time period, likely indicating declining affordability and limited mobility.6

The widespread environmental and housing problems of residents are two of the most pressing issues facing the community. The average age of the main housing structures on the Rancho Vista and Redwood lots is 22 years, resulting in widespread need for weatherization and home improvements. Almost all households rely on a septic tank, but 44 % of them report serious problems with their tanks, including clogs, back-ups of sewage, capacity issues, and leaks. Energy inefficiency is also widespread due to windows and doors that do not close properly, homes that are poorly insulated, unstable foundations, faulty electrical wiring, roof leaks, and other problems preventing residents from sealing their homes from the elements. Environmental issues also cause health problems. Poor indoor air quality due to mold, noxious odors, humidity, dust, and poor air circulation cause headaches and asthma and other respiratory problems.7

In this context, economic and environmental needs combine in a clear way to create major quality-of-life problems. Accordingly, the Community Development Clinic seeks to target its work toward changes that will increase both economic and environmental sustainability. The remainder of this essay will detail the progress UT students have made toward improving quality of life for residents in the area through attention to both types of needs.

UT’s Work in Cottonwood Creek

UT’s involvement with Rancho Vista began with the Law School’s Environmental Clinic around 2004. The Clinic faculty and students reached out to the local county commissioners who identified the wastewater-related needs in the area, primarily the widespread problems of failing septic tanks and a smaller number of residents without a septic tank or other sanitary wastewater disposal system. The Clinic then reached out to leaders in the community and hired a community organizer to work with the residents to address the issues surrounding the failing septic tanks and lack of septic tanks. Eventually, the Clinic brought in GrantWorks, an organization providing planning, housing, and community development services to rural Texas. Through a partnership with GrantWorks and county support, the Environmental Clinic and community leaders secured more than twenty new septic tanks for homes in the community. Since then, GrantWorks and the county have secured funding for an additional twenty septic tanks.

The Community Development Clinic at UT Law School first became involved in Rancho Vista in 2006 and has been working continually in the community since then in a variety of ways.

Clear Titles, Equity, and Sustainability

One of the most active areas of work has been in helping the residents secure clear title interests to their homes. The Clinic students have organized and led a series of educational workshops for residents about protecting their homeownership interests—teaching them about the legal rights and responsibilities that come with owning a home. These education workshops have been followed by legal clinics and representation of individual clients with specific legal needs surrounding the titles to their homes. The Clinic has helped more than 25 residents secure clear titles to their home and land. By obtaining secure title, a resident is able to build up equity in the land and is much less at risk of losing the home as a result of unknown liens and unsavory tactics by the seller. This additional equity and security encourages residents to live more sustainably by encouraging them to make improvements on land they can now confidently call their own.

Homestead Property Tax Exemptions and Inequality In Ownership Structures

The Clinic has also helped many residents secure homestead property tax exemptions on their homes, which will lower the amount of taxes that residents have to pay on their homes, especially for seniors and persons with disabilities. Through the homestead property tax exemption work, the Community Development Clinic began helping individual mobile home owners navigate the complicated process to legally attach their mobile homes to the land they have purchased in order to obtain a homestead tax exemption on their home and land. The Community Development Clinic began that initiative by working on an owner-by-owner basis. However, it soon became clear that such an individual approach was not sustainable given the widespread extent of this problem.

The Clinic recognized the inequity in a system in which traditional homeowners automatically received an exemption that covered both the land and the structure on it, while mobile homeowners, in order to receive the analogous exemption, had to navigate a legal process so complicated that it almost always appeared to require legal assistance. With a greater demand for assistance than pro bono lawyers available, such an approach was not sustainable.

Accordingly, clinic students drafted legislation that the Texas Legislature enacted and the Governor signed into law during the 2011 legislative session. The new legislation allows mobile homeowners to easily obtain their full property tax exemptions, through means similar to the simple process that applies to owners of traditional homes.

Formation of a Community Development Corporation

The second role the Community Development Clinic has played is as counsel in forming and operating the Cottonwood Creek Community Development Corporation (CCCDC), which is a nonprofit organization. Having nonprofit designation is important for the community to raise funds and build the necessary capacity to implement programs that will improve the economic and environmental sustainability of the community.

Recognizing the importance of data in securing funding for the community, the Clinic reached out to the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs (LBJ), which led to a collaborative project to survey the community’s housing needs, resources, and environmental sustainability needs. Led by LBJ Professor Peter Ward and his interdisciplinary team of students, the in-depth study resulted in two reports, “Housing Conditions, Sustainability and Self Help in Rancho Vista and Redwood Informal Homestead Subdivisions in Central Texas,” and the companion report, “Sustainable Housing Design and Technology Adoption in Colonias, Informal Homestead Subdivisions, and the ‘Innerburbs.’” The two reports have since been utilized by the Community Development Clinic and the leaders of the CCCDC to prioritize projects and to increase awareness of opportunities to further both economic and environmental sustainability and allow the two to bolster each other. The reports have already aided the efforts of a community partner, the Austin Community Design and Development Center, to write a grant to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is currently in the final stages of a rigorous review process, that would be used to address poor health conditions created by unsustainable housing structures.

The CCCDC is also working to achieve the asset-building goals of community development work. The nonprofit’s formation has already yielded great increases in intellectual/human capital, social capital, and political capital. The community leaders on the CCCDC Board of Directors are a prime example of the intellectual/ human capital the community has gained. Despite many having minimal formal education, the leaders have learned how to run an organization, comply with state and federal legal requirements of nonprofits, seek out and utilize community resources, and mobilize a community.

The leaders are actively engaged in increasing their knowledge and skills. Last semester, a team of clinic students presented four intensive board trainings on the nonprofit’s governing documents and on legal requirements of nonprofits. Those sessions were most effective when they were interactive, as the leaders appreciated the opportunity to discuss the information being presented and to ask and respond to questions. In each session, individuals who had previously been reticent to express opinions or to talk through a concept to reach an understanding became more and more confident in speaking up and having their ideas heard. The leaders also reflected that increased confidence in their board meetings, as the meetings transformed into much more self-run, effective, and efficient vehicles for action by the end of the semester than they were at the outset.

The CCCDC has also increased social capital in the community by bringing neighbors together and providing a forum for them to recount their individual struggles yielding mutual understanding, trust, and a sense of common vision. Despite the grave individual needs of many families in the area, there is a decided sense of desire to improve the community as a whole that is the hallmark of community development work. The leaders have also worked to decrease Rancho Vista’s isolation from the larger community, and have demonstrated the nonprofit’s social-capital gains through hosting intake sessions in the community for various locally-provided social services. These sessions have included bringing in officials to conduct intake for a federal weatherization program that will lower energy costs while improving housing conditions in the community.

Also through the formal nonprofit structure, the community group has been able to attract more attention from political leaders in the community and to secure their assistance. Since forming, the CCCDC has partnered with two local elected officials to remove stray animals from the community, get addresses clearly marked on the mobile homes, and get trash disposal in the community. Additionally, two of the leaders attended a Texas Senate committee meeting, and one testified effectively on the previously mentioned homestead tax exemption bill and how it would affect her neighbors. The satisfaction the leaders felt at having their voices heard in that political forum was evident in discussions with them afterward.

The primary accomplishments of the CCCDC thus far have been in those human/intellectual, social, and political capital categories. Acquiring those assets has laid a critical foundation upon which the leaders are now beginning to build programs that will help increase physical and financial capital. Now the residents are planning to implement of a self-help emergency home repair program. Last semester, clinic students met with a committee designated to explore the possibility of such a program, and the nonprofit board voted to move forward with it. A major goal for the Clinic this semester is to provide general counsel to the home repair program committee in moving forward to select repair recipients, secure funding from community businesses and organizations, and complete a pilot project to assess their capacity to establish the program on a larger scale. The program will utilize the skills of numerous community residents with backgrounds in construction work.

Conclusion

Community development work, at its core, strives toward sustainability. It aims to build capacity and assets within communities to improve economic and environmental conditions for residents and the community at large in a way that promotes the long-term health of the community and residents. The work of the Law School’s Community Development Clinic and Environmental Law Clinic, as well as the LBJ School has shown how a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach can further a broad range of sustainability goals in an individual community. The work of these programs has already led to many community benefits, including: the installation of new septic tank systems that address the overflow of raw sewage, weatherization assistance to lower utility bills, and the creation of a local nonprofit and organization of local leaders to begin an emergency home repair program and tackle other community livability challenges.

These successes demonstrate that community development work can contribute to ecological sustainability, while addressing health, safety, and economic development issues in the community. Although scholarly works touting community development initiatives do not typically highlight environmental sustainability as a major focus, the interdisciplinary work embraced by UT Law’s efforts through the Community Development and Environmental clinics and the LBJ School showcase how student work can support both economic and environmental goals and how such goals bolster each other.

Community development work seeks to empower residents and build capacity so that the residents can play an active role in increasing their assets and impact in the community over the long-term. In Rancho Vista, while much progress has been made, many additional opportunities lie ahead for UT engagement to assist the residents in furthering their community development goals.

With the recent formation of a new nonprofit organization, the leaders will continue to need help in making tangible impacts in the community and working towards larger change to benefit the lives of the residents.

References

  1. Ronald F. Ferguson and William T. Dickens, introduction to Urban Problems and Community Development (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute, 1999), 1-2.
  2. Ibid., 4.
  3. Ibid., 4.
  4. Ibid., 4-5.
  5. Peter M. Ward et al., executive summary to “Housing Conditions, Sustainability and Self Help in Rancho Vista and Redwood Informal Homestead Subdivisions in Central Texas” (report prepared for the community residents and the Community Development Clinic of the UT Law School, Austin, Texas, 2010).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.