Sarah DeVries
Government-built homes are often too small for families and lack amenities. Government-built homes are often too small for families and lack amenities.

Mexico’s social housing projects need input from those who will live in them

Too many homes are abandoned due to ill-advised locations and poor design

When I was a kid, there was a period of time when I was semi-obsessed with strangers’ houses. Whenever someone would drive me somewhere in a car, I’d fixate on the outside of different homes and wonder what it would be like to live there.

More than that, I’d wonder how I would fix it up if I lived there myself. How would I make it a nice place to live? If the house were ugly, I’d think about how I could make it into something I could feel proud of and comfortable within. For me, improving lives always starts at the physical level: how can we turn what’s around us into the best possible place so that we can be the best, happiest and most productive possible versions of ourselves?

Those who read my column regularly will have recognized by now that I have a special place in my heart for design, aesthetics and the urban landscape. To a great extent, I still mentally practice the same childhood pastime I described above. Drop me into any neighborhood and I can immediately list at least six things in under 30 seconds that I’d do to improve it.

Not to insult Mexico, but at least in my city this is a very easy exercise to do; sometimes I can get up to 12 things, especially when passing through housing developments that look like the zombie apocalypse has already come and gone. It made me very unproud and frustrated to learn that the Matt Damon movie Elysium’s futuristic dystopia was filmed in modern-day Mexico City. To be fair, it was filmed in a dump that’s now closed, and other utopic parts were filmed in the wealthiest parts of the same city. But still, that site isn’t abandoned. People lived there when it was a dump, and people still live there.

I do this same activity from within homes: what would I do with this space if I lived here? I’ve seen a lot of odd construction in this country, but the projects that confuse me the most are the social housing units, many of which are constructed and sold through Infonavit (the National Workers’ Housing Fund).

It’s one thing if an overly enthusiastic individual designs and builds a house himself and ends up with some odd features; it’s quite another when these homes number in the thousands, are situated in areas without basic services and are the result of gigantic government contracts.

Because of my own interest in the topic, the recent article on a planned housing restoration project immediately got my attention. The picture that went with it is dismal: a row of abandoned houses, all of which look too small for more than one or two people.

I just don’t get it. Didn’t any of these people play the video game Sim City when they were kids? You can’t just plop down a bunch of houses in the middle of nowhere and expect happy families to magically insert themselves. You need stores, yo. You also need schools, hospitals and a basic façade of security. For the most part, I feel that Mexico far surpasses my home country of the United States on this front as most urban neighborhoods here are at least somewhat self-sustainable: they have stores and places to buy things like bread, tortillas and school supplies.

Among some of the reasons these social housing units have been abandoned are that “… they’re too small for growing families, they’re far from work centers, they lack access to basic services and they’re located in areas with high levels of violence.” My, that does put a damper on things.

Infonavit director Carlos Martínez Velázquez admitted last year that “… many of the housing projects were not feasible from their inception. But construction permits were granted regardless.”

When the municipality doesn’t prioritize comfortable, safe and well-planned communities (either new or current ones), it shows, and I’ve found that many Mexicans have simply resigned themselves to the idea that rather than counting on the government to fix potholes or paint speed bumps, they’ll just have to focus on not tripping over them (especially at night when streetlamps may or may not be present or working).

This is a problem that needs to be fixed.

Recognizing it is the first step, though I’d still like to reserve at least five minutes of our time for jumping up and down in rage that someone actually gave out construction permits and lots and lots of money to create these useless space-suckers; the money came from somewhere, and there was a lot of it — my best and only guess is that it involved corruption, i.e., that people in power’s not-very-smart nephews were awarded lucrative contracts for designing and creating places that turned out to be not worth the materials used.

OK, that’s done. Thank you for indulging me. Now, let’s please focus on improving the communities where people live already and then move on to creating new ones that are intentionally great.

A visit to Mexico’s Alliance for Urban Regeneration website shows both hope and that they have the right idea. After all, I can drone on all day with my own bourgeois ideas about what houses and neighborhoods need and should have, but ultimately the input and participation of those who actually live in the community is the magic ingredient. This is an idea that doesn’t seem to have been implemented much in Mexico in general — those in power actually asking people what they want and need rather than assuming that they know best.

But even before we get to that point, surely we can agree on the necessity of a few basics: paved roads, sidewalks, hookups to water and electricity, drainage, streetlights, schools, stores, doctors, trash pickup, a police station, parks and playgrounds, a community center, public transportation routes and — not to get too ahead of myself — maybe even some closets and counter space in the kitchens and a shelf in the bathroom to set your towel and soap upon. How about bedrooms that are accessible without having to walk through another bedroom?

People know what they need and want, and protocols exist for involving them in the community-building process. So, instead of just demolishing old structures and renovating others, let’s get some input from the people who might actually live there.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com.

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