A Glimmer of Hope for Dry Neighborhood
Residents of Las Lomitas, a small community just outside of Austin, lobbied the Travis County Commissioners Court this week. Their request? A federal grant to help pay to get running water out to their homes. In the last part of our series On Dry Land: The Story of Las Lomitas, we report how the residents have banded together to solve this problem.
The residents of Las Lomitas gathered recently under a large open-air pavilion on Maria and Gerardo Avila’s property. The Avilas own a landscaping business. Flowers, succulents and even a mini-golf course surround the structure.
The Las Lomitas Neighborhood Association has been meeting here every other Thursday in anticipation of their time before the county commissioners. The meetings are conducted almost entirely in Spanish and are complete with agendas, minutes and treasurer reports.
Children jump on a trampoline while their parents discuss a perennial issue: how they’re going to raise the nearly half a million dollars they need to pipe water to their homes.
“What I like about this community is that they’re all really together,” said Ileana Riojas. She works for the Avilas but volunteers her time after hours to help translate and keep things organized.
“The majority of people that live here don’t have that type of background education, but we do have some people that live here, like Ms. Escalante lives in Lot 2, she’s an accountant,” Riojas said. “I have Belinda who’s a teacher. The Jascas in Lot 5 have been helping out too. But the majority of them are not familiar with the type of laws and what it takes to run an association.”
Las Lomitas residents have decided to take legal action to solve their water problem. Frances Leos Martinez is with the nonprofit legal aid group Community Building with Community Resources.
“Our hope and our goal is to identify sources of funding so that the families don’t have to bear the cost of it,” Martinez said. “Our goal is to bring down the cost as much as possible.”
They’ve zeroed in on a federally funded grant program called a community development block grant, or CDBG. They submitted the first round of paperwork in March. The next hurdle is a primary survey, conducted by Travis County.
Just after 6:30 on a Thursday evening earlier this month, Las Lomitas residents packed into the South Rural Community Center in Del Valle, about a mile from Austin’s airport.
One of the residents, Frank Garza, was looking at a survey map with Lee Turner, one of Travis County’s chief engineers.
“That’s me,” Garza said. “Lot number 9.”
“I’ve got an aerial of the houses,” Turner said, “and since they don’t really have addresses that go specifically with individual houses, I need to try and figure out exactly where they live and what groups of these are houses and barns and families. We’re just trying to figure out how these things are put together.”
Members of the neighborhood have been trained by Travis County officials to conduct the written portion of the survey. Each of the administrators is bilingual.
“Every family has to fill out a survey that basically lets us know about how much money they make and their demographic makeup,” said Christy Moffett, the Travis County CDBG senior planner. “If it’s considered a low- to moderate-income area, then we can go ahead and see if there’s any environmental concerns, what the requirements are for the water supplier and then also how much the project will cost,” Moffett said.
Only about half of the 31 families showed up for the survey that night. In order to be considered complete, 80 percent of the families have to submit a completed survey. The county can’t move forward with the grant proposal without the surveys.
If approved, the grant would take care of most of the cost of running water out to Las Lomitas. If it’s not approved, Riojas says the community will keep working together to figure something else out.
“They don’t have nowhere to go,” Riojas said. “If they’re going to have to keep doing fundraisers, they’re going to keep doing fundraisers until they get that money. Some people are saying, why don’t we apply to the TV shows that come in and remodel people’s homes for millions of dollars? We just need $400,000, you know?”
“I feel very confident that they’re going to have water,” Martinez said. She has worked with communities like Las Lomitas for more than 20 years. She says even though legislation to protect against underdeveloped land has improved, she doesn’t expect communities like this one to stop appearing.
“If profit is there to be made and the pieces of land are large enough, and you have people looking for affordable housing solutions, it will continue to happen,” she said.
The Creedmoor-Maha Water Co-op owns the service rights to Las Lomitas. That means that if pipes were ever run to the subdivision, the co-op would provide the water.
“I think, from my experience, that counties need more authority on reviewing and planning land development,” said Mark Zeppa, a lawyer at the co-op. “But there’s this constant tension between cities and counties over who’s going to have the ultimate authority to do that. What we need to do is to stop the Hank Peavlers of the world from putting in these little colonia-type developments without providing any utility services.”
Hank Peavler was the developer who built the subdivision. Ira Parker says he wouldn’t have bought his house from Peavler if he knew it wasn’t going to come with water lines.
But, on the other hand, he feels like he’s become less isolated from his neighbors because of their common struggle.
“I’m about the only black in the neighborhood, and most everybody here talks Spanish,” Parker said. “But even though I can’t speak Spanish, it makes us seem more like a family. Now we pretty well know everybody here.”
Norma Escalante agrees.
“I didn’t know who my neighbors were, back here, back there,” Escalante said. “I had no idea. And now I know such and such lives here. I had no idea who they were until recently at the meetings.”
Escalante says she’s not bitter or resentful about having to truck water in to her home. Instead, she’s focused on moving forward.
“I’m hopeful, but when you’ve lived without something so long you think it’s never going to happen, but I’m hopeful,” she said. “I’m very hopeful.”
The residents of Las Lomitas should have an answer about their grant request from the county within two weeks.