Mexico City,Mexico

by Priscilla Connolly


Historically, urban segregation in Mexico City was caused by topography and colonial land use, with the flood-prone areas to the east of the city being occupied by the lower classes. With high immigration and birth rates during the greater part of the 20th century, the city’s population grew to 18 million, of which over 60 per cent are currently considered to be ‘poor’ or ‘moderately poor’. The built-up area expanded from 23 square kilometres to 154,710 square kilometres between 1900 and 2000, engulfing surrounding towns and villages and invading steep hillsides and dried-up lake beds on which slums developed. Initially, highly crowded one- or two-roomed rented tenements, called vecindades, provided housing for the poor. With intensive industrialization and concurrent urbanization after 1940, peripherally located colonias populares – irregular settlements comprised of self-built and mainly owneroccupied dwellings – emerged as the leading lower-middle and low-income housing option.

The immense scale of Mexico City’s housing poverty andthe highly complex, dynamic processes preclude general official or unofficial definitions of slums comparable to the English word. Instead, terms such as colonias populares (lower class neighbourhoods) are used. Recently, ‘areas with high marginalization indices’ have been identified.The following five types of slum are identifiable:

Colonias populares: the most critical housing conditions are in the newer or unconsolidated irregular settlements, or colonias populares, resulting from unauthorized land development and construction, with deficits in urban services, often in high-risk areas and with dubious property titles. Most settlements have been improved to varying degrees as property is regularized, infrastructure and services put in and houses solidly built. Yet, the colonias never become completely regular. Legalized properties become irregular again through intestate inheritance, dilapidation or fiscal problems. Irregular settlements constitute roughly half of the urbanized area and house more than 60 per cent of the population.

Inner-city rental slums (vecindades): these slums date from the late 19th century and comprise houses abandoned by the wealthy and converted into tenements for the poor, providing the model for purpose-built cheap rental housing. After the 1940s, the production of rented vecindades continued in the peripheral irregular settlements; but here, unlike in the inner city, the landlords are often slum dwellers themselves. About 10 per cent of all housing in Mexico City is in vecindades.

Ciudades perdidas: this is a broad concept referring to small-scale pockets of shanty housing on vacant land or undesirable urban locations. These are no longer quantitatively important as a form of slum.

Cuartos de azotea: these are servants’ quarters and makeshift accommodation on the roofs of apartments or early public housing. They are almost invariably well located in central areas and provide 0.4 per cent of all of Mexico City’s housing units.

Deteriorated public housing projects: many formally produced, subsidized owner-occupied housing projects built for the working classes have become highly deteriorated, with overcrowding and other social problems. As much as 15 per cent of Mexico City’s population now live in government-financed housing projects of variable quality.

The vast majority of the precarious settlements’ occupants are homeowners. Only 7 per cent of the housing in the worst areas are rented, compared to a metropolitan average of 17.3 per cent. In the central areas, the traditional vecindades and other rental accommodation continue to lose population and to be destroyed due to ageing and land-use changes. Apart from the highly successful housing reconstruction programme after the 1985 earthquake, further projects for repopulating the city centre have had limited impact since they are severely hampered by a lack of viable finance and land for development.

Many public housing projects throughout the city are becoming slums. Inadequate self-administration of these projects has led to lack of maintenance, invasion and degradation of public space, structurally dangerous alterations and bad neighbourhood relations. All of this is aggravated by the original cheap construction, low space standards and the increasing impoverishment of their working-class occupants, smitten by unemployment, alcohol and drug dependency, social violence and high crime rates.

Irregular settlements continue to develop in a more dispersed and differentiated manner, especially in the metropolitan municipalities. The city is growing disproportionately to demographic increase, accommodating smaller families and an ageing population. Nevertheless, most of the city has been built now, and what happens within existing colonias will determine the quality of future habitat for the majority of the poor. The original problems here of precarious construction, risks from landslides or flooding and insufficient services are compounded by deterioration and overcrowding. The advantages of irregular settlements are flexibility and relatively large plots that accommodate extended families and second or third generations. In the last decade, financial subsidies have been directed at formal commercial developments of mass-produced tiny singlefamily houses on the extreme outskirts of the city.

About two-thirds of Mexico City’s population live in colonias populares; but by no means should all be considered to be ‘slum dwellers’. In fact, most colonias contain some degree of social heterogeneity. The distinguishing characteristic of hopeless slums is not so much the poverty of all of their inhabitants, but, rather, the absence of middleand high-income families.

Local government policy towards irregular settlement formation has been generally laissez faire or even encouraging, with some notable exceptions of mass evictions. Once established, a colonia popular will lnormally encounter few problems in obtaining electricity, although basic infrastructure may take longer, depending upon the terrain, the location of the settlement, the political climate and other localized factors. The costs are covered by the inhabitants and the local governments, with federal subsidies for certain items in the case of some specific upgrading programmes. Since 2001, the federal district government (governing the half of Mexico City that is the nation’s capital) has run an innovative programme providing credits for home improvements and new extensions to owner occupiers in the more impoverished colonias populares. This is part of a wider policy of social investment, including monthly cash subsidies for the over-70s and the disabled, school breakfasts and community crime-prevention measures. The housing programme accounts for about one quarter of the social budget. In addition, the social prosecutor of the same federal district government runs a scheme called Housing Projects Rescue, consisting of nonrepayable grants for the maintenance and repair of public housing. Similar projects might be implemented in Mexico City’s metropolitan municipalities, though these have yet to be devised. An evaluation of the immediate and longer-term effects of credits for home improvement, as well as the housing project rescue scheme, is premature.

In spite of recent decentralization policies, power and resources are highly concentrated in central government. Throughout most of the 20th century, political power was virtually monopolized by the Revolutionary InstitutionalParty (PRI). Political reform began during the late 1970s, slowly at first, with electoral successes of opposition parties being limited to lower levels of government, but gathering momentum towards the end of the century. The replacement of the traditional one-party clientism by competitive electioneering has altered the unwritten rules governing access to benefits and basic necessities, such as housing credits, urban services, regularization programmes and social subsidies. The role of political intermediaries has been undermined or transformed. Political reform is combined with new social policies that replace collective targeting and aspirations of global coverage through the individualization of benefits, with the aim of ‘targeting the most needy’. The practical effects are, however, uneven and it is unlikely that what the needy most require is the kind of housing subsidies that are provided, and even less likely that they will obtain them.

This summary has been extracted from:

UN-Habitat (2003) Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, The Challenge of Slums, Earthscan, London; Part IV: 'Summary of City Case Studies', pp195-228.

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2003 Development Planning Unit | Anna Soave | Khanh Tran-Thanh