U.S. builds rental housing in Ajo for border agents

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

PHOENIX -- The federal government spent an average of more than $600K each to build 21 new homes for Customs and Border Protection personnel to live in a remote Arizona town in a region rife with drug smuggling and illegal border crossings.

CBP said the housing complex provides CBP personnel and their families with affordable, high-quality and energy efficient rental homes "that successfully address their needs in a remote location."

The two- and three-bedroom homes were built in Ajo, a former mining town located in the southern Arizona desert 114 miles west of Tucson and 105 miles east of Yuma.

The project cost a total of $13 million, with much of the spending going for appliances, solar panels and paved streets, according to CBP. "This is a large sum of taxpayers' money and this agency believes in being good stewards."

A database maintained by a southern Arizona newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star, indicates that most similar-size homes in Ajo sold last year for less than $100,000.

The federal government's buildup of federal agents on the border has caused housing shortages in communities throughout the Southwest, said Doris Meissner, who was commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in the 1990s and is now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.

However, private industry has filled most needs, making the Ajo project and its funding unusual, she said. "On the face, it looks quite startling."

A U.S. General Services Administration assessment for the project said most CBP employees assigned to the Ajo area live in Phoenix, Tucson or Gila Bend and commute to the border region.

CBP officials considered renovating 21 separate properties within the community but said it would be more expensive than starting from scratch after the cost of environmental assessments and appraisals, according to CBP.

The new housing could encourage CBP employees to move to Ajo, said Bety Allen, executive director of the Ajo Chamber of Commerce.

Allen moved to Ajo from Montana with her husband, who is a Border Patrol agent, and said finding suitable rental housing was stressful.

"If those houses would have been there, it would have been so much easier," Allen said.