Living in Fear: Tenants claim landlord exposed them to diseases

Dalila Rodriguez

Action 4 News launched an investigation after a concerned citizen reached out to us about families near Donna living in deplorable conditions.

What we found was so shocking that the Hidalgo County Environmental Health Department is stepping in.

The last seven years has been a nightmare for Dalila Rodriguez.

"We're not animals we're people. My children are American citizens. They have rights to live here, live better because we're paying rent," former tenant Dalila Rodriguez said.

She said she paid $330 dollars a month to live in one of many dilapidated trailers along Castillo Street near Donna.

That is not the worst of it. Broken beer bottles, pipes, and piles of trash litter the property.

There's even a ditch overflowing with raw sewage that spills onto a neighboring roadway.

It's not just the odor of human waste, said Rodriguez, but the unsanitary conditions that have also made tenants sick.

This past July, she claims several were diagnosed with tuberculosis.

"My daughter tested positive, my husband, my little one tested positive. It's not just us, there's a lot more people," she explained.

Her 17-year-old son, Gilberto Leal, nearly lost his leg to a bacterial infection. It was saved, but the scars remain.

"Doctors asked me if my son had gone into a swimming pool or a contaminated swamp because this bacteria is borne in a pool or swamp.I told them the only contaminated water is where I live. There is the septic ditch that spills into the street," she recalled.

According to Rodriguez, not much has changed since they moved out a couple months ago.

During our investigation, we found many of those conditions still exist. Nori Santos gave us an inside look at the trailer she's been living in for two years.

Santos pays $200 a month including water and light, but said that's not a guarantee that either will work. .

"We told [the landlord] 'you need to fix things, the bathroom, the sink.' Today, there is no water, not even to wash our hands," Santos said.

Santos said she has taken her concerns to her landlord, but claimed her concerns have gone ignored.

It's something Rodriguez said she is all too familiar with.

"She told us to pay rent that's it, if we asked her to fix the ditch, she told us to leave 'if you don't like it leave.'"

Action 4 News took their concerns to Rosita Perez, the woman tenants claim is their landlord.

Perez denied renting out the trailers long term and told us the housing is only a temporary solution that she offered in order to help get these people back on their feet.

"They give me $20-30, but they really don't pay me. That is the money we use to pay the water and electric," said landlord Rosita Perez.

Perez quickly changed her response when we told her the Rodriguez family said they paid $330 a month.

"No, she never paid $300. $200 yes, $200," responded Perez.

Perez then reassured us her tenants have light and running water, but any improvements or repairs needed will come at the expense of her tenants.

Even if that means having to raise their rent.

"$100, $250 maybe something that is better," Perez said.

Shocked at what we uncovered, we put a call into the Hidalgo County Planning and Environmental Health Department to get answers.

"The issues with substandard water and waste water are again, disease. That's the whole reason behind the colonia prevention laws that were enacted," explained Hidalgo County Planning Supervisor T.J. Arredondo.

While several families are living on the one and a half acres of land, Arredondo said there should only be three residences in order to avoid the risk of septic malfunction and overflow.

Now, aware of the numerous trailers Perez is renting in her backyard, county health officials are stepping in.

Action 4 News asked Hidalgo County Environmental Health Manager Chardo Ramos if the conditions were livable due to the overflow in the septic system.

"No. At this time, this is not going to be livable," responded Ramos.

Due to current conditions, Ramos said the county is giving Perez 30 days to clean up the property due to issues relating to the septic system, which also allows her current tenants the opportunity to find another place to live.

The Hidalgo County Planning Department said while it has yet to make it out to the property and still needs to review the tax history of the lot, it plans to report this case to the Attorney General for further investigation.