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| Housing |

After Months of Struggle, a Denton Neighborhood Finally Gets Clean Water

The city of Denton installed water meters in the new development opposite Green Tree Estates, requiring residents to lay pipes from the meter to their homes. Alfredo (left) and Homero (right) work on the pipe system.EXPAND
The city of Denton installed water meters in the new development opposite Green Tree Estates, requiring residents to lay pipes from the meter to their homes. Alfredo (left) and Homero (right) work on the pipe system.
Mike Brooks

Ednna will never forget it: The sound of the faucet turning, the elation in her husband’s voice and the sight of pure, clear water — not that yellow stuff they were used to — trickling into the kitchen sink.

“It was amazing,” she says in Spanish. “It made it all worth it.”

It was late summer 2020, and Ednna and a dozen other families in the working class, predominantly Spanish-speaking Denton neighborhood Green Tree Estates hadn’t had water since November 2019. Previously, Green Tree residents had access to a neighborhood well, but in late 2019, Don Roddy, the owner of the well and a Green Tree resident, shut off his neighbors’ access. The shutoff was just the latest in a long line of indignities suffered by the neighborhood’s families.

As reported by the Denton Record-Chronicle, the well had a “spotty” history of repeated violations dating to 2006. The quality (or its lack) was no secret. Residents like Ednna could take one look at the discolored water and see that it wasn’t right. It stained her shower and her drinking cups, leaving yellow crust on everything it touched. Yet none of the nearly 50 men, women and children living in Green Tree Estates knew the extent of the water’s contamination. For years, its lead, copper and chlorine levels were dangerously high, according to records from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Nevertheless, just as they made do with no trash service and the cracked, potholed roads leading to and from their homes, these families tolerated the water. They washed dishes with it, and they bathed in it even when it gave them sores and blisters. They needed it to live. So, when they realized they were about to lose it, they started organizing.

Ednna (who, like many other residents, asked to be identified only by first name) joined a coalition of activists, advocates, teachers and one pesky plumber who spent nearly 10 months trying to get water back to Green Tree Estates. While balancing work, children and a pandemic, mothers Ednna, Elva and Betty became de facto government and water code experts, well-versed in all of the bureaucratic red tape standing between their families and access to clean water.

“There’s a phrase in Spanish, hacer valer,” says Mariela Nuñez-Janes, an organizer and University of North Texas professor who advocated and raised money for the Green Tree families. “It literally means to bring value back to something, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about going from something subhuman to something with dignity again. That’s what these families had to do.”

***
Elva (left) shows Mariela Nuñez-James some photos of their long saga with the city.EXPAND
Elva (left) shows Mariela Nuñez-James some photos of their long saga with the city.
Mike Brooks

Green Tree Estates is part of a parcel of land annexed by Denton in 2013. Ryan Adams, a city spokesman, says that annexation was no different than any of the 44 annexations the city has undertaken since 2010. The city wants to “protect and manage growth,” Adams explains, as well as “manage land in growth areas” and “create a logical contiguous city of Denton boundary.”

“It’s important to note that the neighborhood was never exclusively targeted for annexation,” Adams says, but advocates for Green Tree Estates have their doubts.

“Looking at a map, it’s pretty clear [the city] wants this place to be more developed,” says Dewey Marshall, a staffer with the North Texas Fair Housing Center. “The road right outside Green Tree breaks off into this big suburban area with McMansions, and it’s right there, ready to be paved. Any developer can come in, and the city would probably welcome that with open arms.”

Indeed, Betty, who has owned and lived on a property in Green Tree Estates for 10 years, can look out of her home’s window and see a sizable suburban development a couple hundred feet away.

“She sees streets, she sees plumbing, she sees yards,” says Lilyan Prado-Carrillo, another advocate who helped the residents talk to the city. “And Betty is paying taxes just like them. If they can have water and trash service and safe, paved roads, why can't Betty?”

To Marshall, the answer is clear.

“This is prejudice,” he says. “This is housing discrimination.”

Marshall heard about the water problem in late October 2019 when the residents were informed by the city they would lose access to water in a matter of weeks, but the notice documents were written in English with no Spanish translation. Then, when some Green Tree families attended an Oct. 29 meeting with city staff to discuss their water options, no Spanish translator was present. That’s when Nuñez-Janes got involved.

Nuñez-Janes is a member of the Denton chapter of Movimiento Cosecha, an immigrant rights group. She quickly realized that the largely Hispanic Green Tree community wasn’t getting the resources it needed to regain access to water, and it wasn’t just a lack of translation.

“The city’s initial communication was basically a listing of homeless shelters,” she says. “The assumption was residents were going to move, but that was never their intention.”

That assumption also irked Prado-Carrillo, president of the Denton League of United Latin American Citizens. Deb Armintor, a City Council member, contacted Prado-Carrillo for help translating, and the two women visited the neighborhood ahead of a Nov. 9 meeting with the council. The water was scheduled to be shut off Nov. 15, and this time, Prado-Carrillo wanted the residents to be prepared and share their stories.

“When I got to the neighborhood, all of these families were packed into Elva’s house,” she says. “They had food and drinks ready for me, and they wanted to know what they could do to fight for their homes and their families. The biggest worry was the kids. They asked me, ‘How am I going to take care of my kids?’ How am I going to make sure my kids have water?’”

The city requires residents to drag their trash half a mile to the edge of Green Tree Estates for service.EXPAND
The city requires residents to drag their trash half a mile to the edge of Green Tree Estates for service.
Mike Brooks

The Nov. 9 meeting was the first of 14 City Council meetings attended by the Green Tree families, who were ostensibly led by Eddna, Elva and Betty. Many of the meetings lasted upwards of seven hours, and mothers like Elva often employed their children to translate for them. The children who weren’t translating, including Eddna’s 10- 12- and 13-year-old daughters, were often there watching their mothers explain their plight.

“It’s incredibly difficult to advocate for yourself in a situation like this,” says Marshall, who has experience working on behalf of families in housing crises. “These women directed their trauma to City Council, and they did it over and over again.”

Families shared stories of the coarse, corrosive water they had tolerated for years and asked the council how their young children were supposed to live without water to drink. In return, Denton’s City Council gave few options.

In addition to the homeless shelters, one proposal was a community bathroom housed in a trailer. Residents and their advocates quickly balked at the idea.

“These mothers told me, ‘We feel like we’re being treated like refugees,’” Prado-Carrillo says. “‘They hear us, but they don’t listen to us. It’s like we’re invisible.’”

Not all council members were unsympathetic. Armintor, an unapologetic liberal in deep red Denton, has been a staunch ally of the community since October 2019.

“[The other council members] were like, ‘Well, if we help this community, then we have to help everyone who needs something like this,’” Armintor says. “And I’m sitting there, like, ‘Yeah. We do.’”

It quickly became clear that the water crisis was far more convoluted than Green Tree families realized. Specifically, the neighborhood’s residents did not receive notice of the water shutoff at least 120 days before the cease of operations, a window required by the TCEQ. Yet according to the Denton Record-Chronicle, Roddy, the well’s owner, claimed some of the 11 water connections were illegal, and the TCEQ does not mandate the 120-day window for illegal connections. Worse yet, state officials knew for at least five years that Roddy wanted to shut off his neighbors’ access to the well.

There’s also a question of private vs. public lands. Since Roddy owns the well and much of the surrounding land, the city has argued it does not have the right to enter the neighborhood and install water connections without his written approval. The city offered to provide water connections after the 2013 annexation, but Roddy declined, and Nuñez-Janes says she is “not aware” of the residents ever being relayed that news. Thus, the dozens of men, women and children who relied on the caustic yet essential water supply were mired in a bureaucratic mess further complicated by questions of land ownership, state negligence and city responsibility.

“We needed an immediate fix and a long-term fix,” Prado-Carrillo says.

At a Nov. 15 meeting, Denton’s City Council voted to declare an emergency. Fourteen houses received a 275-gallon drum of water, which the city promised to refill several times a week for 90 days. The well was shut off that same day, but families were relieved for the moment.

“At least we had something,” Ednna remembers thinking. “I don’t think we realized how much work was ahead.”

***

These Green Tree residents worked to bring clean water to their community. From left to right: Beatrice, Elva, Gladis.EXPAND
These Green Tree residents worked to bring clean water to their community. From left to right: Beatrice, Elva, Gladis.
Mike Brooks

Crystal Lopez heard the door slam, and moments later, her husband plodded into the kitchen. Right away, she could tell Luis Lopez was angrier than she had ever seen him before.

“He doesn’t get mad all that often,” Crystal says. “But that day, he blew up.”

In early July, Luis, a Denton plumber with the company AM Plumbing, was supposed to install water meters at Green Tree Estates. His contract came after months of haggling between City Council and the neighborhood’s families. The emergency declaration had been extended three times before a formal plan was made: A water system would be installed, and residents could connect to the system if their homes passed inspection.

“City Council believed that these weren’t safe, livable homes,” Prado-Carrillo says. “We spent months debating them on that, and I think they were relying on these stereotypes about how Spanish-speaking people live.”

In reality, she says, the homes needed little more than new batteries in their smoke alarms. The homes passed inspections, and in early July, Luis could get to work. But when he arrived at the neighborhood on the morning of July 2, Luis found that the area designated for the meter build was nowhere near where he and the Green Tree families were told it would be. To the plumber, that was an insult.

“What this came down to was red tape,” he would later say, recounting his fury. “Because of all of this bureaucracy, these families had to go months without water.”

Luis said as much in an email to several council members and Denton’s assistant city manager. With Crystal watching, the fuming plumber paced the floor of their kitchen, hammering away on his phone.

“City government is supposed to help us, not get so caught up in red tape that we can’t make common sense rules to help our less fortunate communities,” he wrote in the email. “In my business, when you smell shit, it’s usually because there is some around. I smell shit!”

The assistant city manager asked Luis to apologize for his explicit email, and Luis declined. Ultimately, advocates believe his outburst was helpful.

“I don’t think the city really started taking things seriously until Luis got involved,” Marshall says.

It helped that Luis knows Chris Watts, his neighbor and the mayor of Denton.

“We’re not the kind of friends that go to dinner,” Luis says. “But he knows me, and I know him.”

Nevertheless, each Green Tree family that wanted to connect to the new system had to pay the city nearly $7,000 by July 3. In a 4-3 vote conducted in early May, the council denied the families’ petition for a year extension, leaving them with a couple of months to come up with the money they needed for water.

“I think they expected families to move on,” Prado-Carrillo says. “Honestly, I think these families surprised them with how devoted they are to their homes.”

Parents scrimped and got a big boost from Movimiento Cosecha and Denton Puente, a coalition of local organizations supporting the Hispanic community. The groups raised more than $45,000 for Green Tree families, enough to cover connection costs for six families. Only one hurdle remained: Roddy.

Since Roddy owns much of the neighborhood’s land, Luis needed his permission to lay any piping. Nuñez-Janes says Roddy waffled. Advocates say the landowner, who could not be reached for comment for this story, gave verbal permission then refused to sign the necessary documentation. According to Nuñez-Janes, he wanted his plumbing free. When he finally relented, Luis was free to get to work. Once again, the community stepped up.

Volunteers visited Green Tree to dig trenches, and the residents chipped in, too. Luis’ phone is full of images of fathers and sons carving massive trenches into the ground, literally laying the groundwork for their own water. In one photo, an 8-year-old boy, caked in mud, is hard at work in a trench surrounded by piping-in-progress. After about a week of work, the plumbing was done, and on July 22, families started connecting to city water. Betty’s family of four was the first.

“I told all of my friends to come over,” she says. “I felt like I had a spa.”

Ednna soon followed suit, connecting to water for her family of five.

“My husband ran in to tell me to turn on the faucet, and there it was,” she says. “We just started screaming, because it was white.”

***
A young resident shows off a clean glass of water.EXPAND
A young resident shows off a clean glass of water.
Mike Brooks

It’s a late September day at Green Tree Estates, and some families have gathered for a celebration. Two months ago, families got access to clean water, some for the first time in years. As children play soccer and tag, activists like Prado-Carrillo and Nuñez-Janes chat with Ednna, Betty and Elva. Marshall and Armintor are there, too. The adults sit around a long white table in Elva’s backyard, munching carne asada and shielding their eyes from the late summer sun. The mood is light, and the families are taking a moment to reflect on the last year.

“I don’t think I knew any City Council members before this,” Betty jokes in Spanish. “But now I know them, and they know me!”

“What are we going to wait for now?” Elva says in jest.

Each of them are smiling and laughing, but they also bear the scars of a long fight. Betty, pointing to a streak of grey in her otherwise jet black hair, calls it “my present from the city of Denton.” Elva looks exhausted, the lines under her eyes exposing months of worrying.

“There were times when I was losing hope,” Ednna says. “But I didn’t let myself feel that way for too long. I couldn’t, because of my kids.”

Even as they joke about having nothing to wait for, each family knows their fight isn’t over.

As city taxpayers, they want their roads fixed. They want trash service, too, instead of having to rely on an occasional friend with a truck to haul off all of their waste. Most of all, they want to be treated like human beings with families, worries and homes.

“Everybody has rights,” Ednna says. “People like us have rights, too.

Elva says the families won’t “let things cool off,” and they should keep the pedal to the floor with their questions and outreach to the city. This earns a nod from Ednna, who adds, in Spanish, that the families have to keep asserting themselves if they hope to be treated as equal.

Hacer valer,” she says. “Hacer valer.”

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