In the dense, damp forests northeast of Houston, a pair of brothers hit on a viable real estate business model: Offer plots of cheap land and unconventional loans for people who wanted to build their own houses, with few restrictions.
The concept took off, not least among the large population of undocumented immigrants in Texas, who often do not have the legal paperwork needed for most bank loans.
The Colony Ridge community, whose first residents moved in a decade ago, is now home to 40,000 people or more, with plans to more than double in size.
Over the years, its swift growth and predominantly Hispanic population drew opposition from the mostly white residents of a small nearby town and some local officials, who lodged complaints and filed lawsuits. Opponents spray painted “Build that wall” on one of the developer’s billboards after Donald J. Trump’s election. One sent a desiccated chicken foot — and a note describing a voodoo hex — as a warning to the county judge.
But with a new wave of migrants arriving at the southern border in recent weeks, the sprawling development has become a lightning rod for conservatives in the state and highlighted a growing tension within the Republican Party: those who focus on business freedom, and others determined to control the border.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a hard-right conservative, took a helicopter tour of Colony Ridge last month and said that it appeared to be growing with “unprecedented speed” and could reach 100,000 residents in the next decade.
Advertisements on a trailer home in Cleveland, Texas.
“This should not come as a shock to anyone,” Mr. Patrick wrote on his campaign website after his tour. “Where does President Biden think the millions of people he has allowed into the country are going to live? The federal government drops thousands of people in the streets every day in Texas and cities across America.”
The political uproar was fueled by a story last month in The Daily Wire, which noted that the area at one point had the fastest-growing Hispanic population in the United States and was struggling to provide adequate schools and policing. It warned, without evidence, that the area could become “a strategic asset for cartels.”
“We’re taking this very seriously,” Gov. Greg Abbott said on Fox News, adding that the state had deployed troopers to the area and subpoenaed bank records of the developers to find out “exactly what is going on.” Mr. Abbott directed the Legislature to hold hearings on Colony Ridge during a special session that starts on Monday.
The development is a product of Texas’ developer-friendly culture — one of the owners of Colony Ridge is a major donor to Mr. Abbott — that has allowed for the creation of cheap housing amid a national housing crisis, as well as the use of a little-known method of financing that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain home loans without traditional credit scores or Social Security numbers.
The result has been an unusual but also distinctly Texan sort of boomtown — row after row of affordable homes and trailers, taquerias and pickup trucks — emerging where not long before there had been nothing.
“The developer has told us to expect 150 new students a month,” said Stephen McCanless, the superintendent of the Cleveland Independent School District, which includes Colony Ridge. The district has nearly doubled in size, to about 11,800 students in three years, he said, and is 85 percent Hispanic.
The vast majority — more than 10,000 — were born in the United States, according to data provided by the district. About 1,400 were born elsewhere, with the largest contingents coming from Honduras, Mexico and El Salvador.
Mr. McCanless said he has spent $12 million on portable classrooms. “It’s such fast growth. I don’t believe any community can keep up with that,” he said.
Voters in Liberty County — where Republicans control all the elected offices — have rejected proposals for new bonds to help the schools expand.
The county judge, Jay Knight, said he would like the development to have grown more slowly, so the local community could adjust, and for the county to have more control. But he said state law provides few powers to counties to regulate development.
“We follow the law,” he said, sitting at his desk, a cellphone occasionally erupting with a ringtone of bellowing cattle. “It didn’t happen overnight, and it’s going to take years to fix.”
Mr. Knight said he had negotiated with Colony Ridge to include building requirements on some of their newer developments, such as minimum square footage.
Still, some in the community have attacked him for not doing more to curb the development. He described receiving the chicken foot in the mail two years ago, along with a note, apparently purchased online. “It was a voodoo hex,” he said, adding that he believed it had been sent by an outspoken former official in the town of Plum Grove, which borders the Colony Ridge development.
Matthew Poston, the county attorney, said that while the issue had become politicized, there were real challenges presented by such rapid growth in a relatively poor part of the state.
“For the folks who want to say that all the residents of Plum Grove are racist: They have actual valid concerns here,” he said, such as the deterioration of their roads from so much car traffic. “Even if you solved the illegal immigration aspect, we still have tens of thousands of very legal citizens living in that part of the woods.”
The development, which stretches over more than 10,000 acres and includes several subdivisions, is a rough mix of building styles and incomes, with two-story houses selling for more than $200,000 near old trailer homes on overgrown plots or partially built structures. New commercial businesses have sprung up: a grocery store, a Domino’s Pizza, a Chinese restaurant run by a family from Mexico. Dogs roam freely.
“Land is cheaper here, we can actually get our own house,” said Cynthia Foster, 32, who moved to the area with her partner and two children and now lives in a three-bedroom house behind the Family Dollar store, where she works.
New roads are dotted with signs in Spanish and English advertising plots of land for a down payment as low as $500. “Fire and EMS Coming Soon!” another sign reads.
The development company offers direct financing to buyers, including those with bad or no credit and those who have only a federal tax number as a form of identification. So-called I.T.I.N. loans are legal under state and federal law and are based on an individual tax identification number issued by the Internal Revenue Service, issued to those not eligible for Social Security numbers, such as migrants who have no legal work authorization.
“Anybody can buy a house,” said Christopher Almaraz, a real estate agent who has sold homes in Colony Ridge.
One 40-year-old migrant who came from Honduras in 2006 and asked that her name not be used said she sold dresses to help care for her three children. Standing at her front door, she said she and her husband, a construction worker also from Honduras, had gotten an I.T.I.N. loan for a $200,000 house, with $60,000 down.
“We wanted to live in a house,” she said.
Such loans generally have higher interest rates. Colony Ridge typically charges about 13 percent, said John Harris, who owns the development company along with his brother William.
“We found properties that no one wanted and people who couldn’t buy anywhere else,” John Harris said, sitting at a boardroom table in the Colony Ridge offices near a map of the development. “There’s a lot of demand for people who want to be left alone to do what they want.” Most customers, he said, came from Houston or its suburbs.
While their approach could work elsewhere, the area of Liberty County where Colony Ridge has developed is unique in its size, low land costs, low taxes and proximity to a major city, the brothers said.
William Harris said the company’s Hispanic buyers were most often reliable “payers,” though about 20 percent of the loans the company offered overall ended up in foreclosure, a far higher rate than is common with traditional home mortgages. He said they were aware that many residents did not have legal status in the United States.
“We’re not border patrol. We’re not immigration,” he said. “There are lawmakers in this country and that’s their responsibility to keep our borders safe.”
William Harris, who has donated more than $1 million in recent years to Mr. Abbott’s campaigns, said he was disappointed to see the governor attack Colony Ridge on national television.
“He’s a politician, it is what it is, he’s got to cover his butt first,” Mr. Harris said. “But don’t expect a million dollars next year. It ain’t happening again, brother.”
Around the development, residents said they had recently noticed helicopters flying overhead, an apparent result of the increased attention from state leaders. “We’ve asked for years for more law enforcement,” said Cynthia Silva, 30, who runs a Spanish language news site focused on Liberty County and lives in the Colony Ridge development.
She stopped in to see her friend, Raquel Reyna, 42, who has made her two plots into a makeshift farm and animal shelter. Ms. Reyna has around 50 chickens, many cats, several goats and, at the moment, 23 stray dogs, some of which, she said, were bound for adoption in New York.
“We saw so many dogs in the street, my heart broke,” she said.
Ms. Reyna came from Mexico at 19 and lived for two decades in Houston before buying land from Colony Ridge on an overgrown cul-de-sac for $52,000. She and her husband and children live in a trailer but are planning to build a house and have been trying to improve the neighborhood.
The presence of state troopers sent by Mr. Abbott appeared to have calmed some of the random gunfire that has plagued the area lately, she said, and she has organized local trash cleanups among neighbors. The United States is a good country for those who want to live right, she said. “If you live well, you’ll live in peace.”