Mackenzie Webb
Housing Assistance Council

Revisiting Rural: Hidalgo County, Texas

July 14, 2022 • Hidalgo County, Texas

This is the third story in Revisiting Rural, a series which explores success stories from the Housing Assistance Council’s 50 years of helping build rural communities.

Only nine miles from the Rio Grande, Proyecto Azteca is working to ensure that more of their neighbors in Hidalgo County, Texas, have somewhere safe, decent, and affordable to call home. Founded in 1991, Proyecto Azteca was formed in the spirit of Cesar Chavez. Its mission is to provide housing assistance and community infrastructure to rural Hidalgo County.

More than 2.4 million people live in areas near the U.S.-Mexico border containing colonias—communities characterized by high poverty rates and substandard living conditions. Hidalgo County is home to 937 colonias, more than 40% of the colonias in Texas. Almost 4,000 homes in Hidalgo County lack complete plumbing, and more than a quarter of the county’s residents live below the poverty line. For over 20 years, the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) has partnered with Proyecto Azteca to build the nonprofit’s capacity to meet the housing needs of colonias in rural Hidalgo County.

From the beginning, HAC’s work with Proyecto Azteca combined technical assistance and financing. In 2004, Proyecto Azteca came to HAC with the goal of more than doubling the output of their self-help housing program. In addition to providing technical assistance on scattered site development through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Community Development Initiative, we lent the organization over $1.4 million to build 128 self-help homes between 1998 and 2012. These 90% forgivable loans, financed through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program (SHOP), helped Proyecto Azteca leverage more than $10.5 million in outside investment.

“Once Proyecto Azteca learns how to run a program, they won’t let anything slow them down.”

HAC’s holistic approach—building both organizational and financial capacity—extended to the group’s operations. We provided a $5,000 grant for Proyecto Azteca to upgrade its computer system, trained staff on best practices for managing finances, and even helped guide the organization through a leadership transition. HAC also provided scholarships for Proyecto Azteca’s staff to attend HAC’s National Rural Housing Conference, where they learned from peers and industry experts. HAC consultant Eugene Gonzales has worked with Proyecto Azteca since 2004. As he notes, “once Proyecto learns how to run a program, they won’t let anything slow them down.”

As Proyecto Azteca has grown, it has continued to improve how it builds houses. Since 2017, HAC has worked with Proyecto Azteca to implement green building standards. By building their homes to LEED Silver standards for energy-efficiency, Proyecto Azteca has helped new homeowners save money on utility bills. Proyecto Azteca’s Executive Director Ann Cass credits the “hands-on approach” of HAC technical assistance providers like Eugene for making the difference for the organization’s programs. “When we have new ideas, we contact HAC, and they help us out. And when we ask for help, they never seem judgmental. HAC is very sincere about helping us make it work.” The result is clear to Assistant Executive Director Amber Arriaga-Salinas: “Our product keeps getting better and better, and I’m so proud of that.”

Since 1998, HAC has lent over $1.4 million to Proyecto Azteca to help families build their own homes.

This March, HAC approved a new SHOP loan to Proyecto Azteca: $75,000 to help 5 families build their own homes. This investment couldn’t have come at a better time. As Amber explains, housing costs in the Rio Grande Valley are “sky-high,” with the average home costing $168,000. Proyecto Azteca’s 3-bedroom homes cost under $90,000. Plus, by offering 0% mortgages, the nonprofit has “made it possible for very low-income families to buy,” Ann adds. HAC’s ongoing technical assistance and lending for Proyecto Azteca’s self-help program is putting homeownership within reach of families across Hidalgo County.

“Our goal is to provide that little extra support to our community that changes peoples’ lives.”

Over 800 families in more than 130 colonias have decent, affordable homes thanks to Proyecto Azteca. But Proyecto’s reach has been felt even more widely. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has provided gift cards for grocery stores to families that have struggled to keep food on the table. They also provided utility assistance, generators, and water heaters after a series of winter storms caused widespread blackouts in February 2021. “All the issues we work on happen under the roofs we build,” Amber says. “Our goal is to provide that little extra support to our community that changes peoples’ lives.”

HAC’s goal is to empower communities, equipping them with the skills, financing, and information they need to make a difference. “We’ve seen them grow a lot,” says Eugene. When HAC first started working with Proyecto Azteca, the organization was building 10-12 homes a year. In 2021—despite all the challenges of the COVID pandemic and rising construction prices—they built or rehabbed 32 homes. Proyecto Azteca is the perfect example of how supporting a single local housing organization can help hundreds of people find a safe, decent, and affordable place to call home.