Urban Society

Urban Society

At the beginning of the twentieth century, only 10.5 percent of the national population lived in localities with more than 15,000 residents. A slow but steady increase of such urban communities occurred over the next four decades, accounting for 20 percent of the country's total population in 1940. They climbed rapidly to 27.9 percent in 1950, 36.5 percent in 1960, 44.7 percent in 1970, 51.8 percent in 1980, and 57.4 percent in 1990. An estimated 71 percent of all Mexicans lived in communities of at least 2,500 residents in 1990.

Three cities--Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey--dominated the urban landscape in the mid-1990s. Their metropolitan areas accounted for about one-fourth of the nation's population and more than 40 percent of the total urban population. Nonetheless, the highest growth rates between 1970 and 1990 occurred in cities containing populations ranging from 100,000 to 1 million. Roughly 23 percent of the nation resided in Mexico's fifty-six mid-level cities in 1990.

With 15 million residents reported in the 1990 census, the Mexico City metropolitan area alone contained 18.5 percent of the total national population. However, the metropolitan area expanded only 5.8 percent from 1980 to 1990, far below the 2.3 percent per annum national population growth rate over the same period. The population of Mexico City itself declined from 9.2 million in 1980 to 8.2 million in 1990, a 10.9 percent reduction. This decline probably reflected both dislocations experienced by low-income, center-city residents following the 1985 earthquake and contracting employment opportunities during the economic crisis of the 1980s. However, one analyst, Alfonso X. Iracheta Cenecorta, contends that Mexico City should be viewed not as a single metropolitan area but rather as an emerging megalopolis also incorporating the cities and surrounding environs of Puebla, Toluca, and Cuernavaca. Seen from this perspective, the region continued to grow during the 1980s, and included slightly more than 17 million people in 1990.

To relieve the strains of rapid growth on Mexico's largest cities, the Salinas administration encouraged businesses and government agencies to move their operations from the major metropolitan areas to mid-level cities. During the 1980s, mid-level cities experienced the nation's highest growth rates. Several cities in northern Mexico, especially along the border with the United States, were particularly dynamic during this period. They included Torreón, Tijuana, Mexicali, Matamoros, and Ciudad Juárez. Other rapidly expanding cities included Cuernavaca and Jalapa near the capital, and Tampico and Coatzacoalcos on the Gulf of Mexico coast.

The dramatic growth of cities over the past forty years has seriously taxed the nation's ability to build urban infrastructure, especially housing. Adequate and affordable housing emerged as a paramount concern of low-income residents after 1940. Prior to that time, most urban poor lived in center-city rental units. Real estate investors frequently converted deteriorating colonial structures into vecindades (sing., vecindad ). A vecindad typically consists of a large number of rented rooms constructed around an interior open area. Residents share kitchen and bathroom facilities, often of marginal quality. Following institution of rent control by the government during World War II, investors often abandoned the vecindad market, depleting an already poor housing stock.

Government efforts to address the urban housing shortfall after World War II generally proved inadequate. During the 1950s and 1960s, the government financed some housing units in major metropolitan areas, the largest of which--the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco housing complex in northern Mexico City--contained nearly 12,000 units.

However, public employees were the principal beneficiaries of government housing programs. During the administration of Luis Echeverría Álvarez (1970-76), the government took a more active role in fostering formal- and informal-sector housing. Three funds were established in 1972: the Institute of the National Housing Fund for Workers (Instituto del Fondo Nacional de la Vivienda para los Trabajadores--Infonavit); the Housing Fund of the Institute of Social Security and Services for State Workers (Fondo para la Vivienda del Instituto de Servicios y Seguridad Social de los Trabajadores del Estado--Fovissste); and the National Institute for Community Development (Instituto Nacional para el Desarrollo de la Comunidad--Indeco). These funds were designed to meet the needs of private-sector formal workers, state employees, and informal-sector workers, respectively. Of the three funds, Infonavit was the most extensive, with nearly 900,000 units financed over a twenty-year period. Still, demand far exceeded supply and a lottery system was used to determine occupancy. In addition, most workers could not afford the monthly payments required.

For the majority of the urban lower class, so-called self-help housing has emerged as the only viable option. A self-help housing community typically begins with the purchase by investors of large tracts of contiguous land on the periphery of urban areas. In some cases, these transactions involve illegal purchases of ejido properties of dubious agricultural worth. Whether ejido or not, however, the tracts usually consist of marginal lands ill-suited for middle- and upper-class residential developments or for industrial purposes. Investors subdivide the land into numerous lots and sell them to low-income families, who then build modest brick structures, often with only single large rooms. Ostensibly, investors cannot sell lots until they have installed water and sewer lines, paved streets, and completed other basic infrastructure. Frequently, however, investors do little more than mark the lots for sale. Because a large land tract may contain thousands of potential lots, investors often realize enormous profits.

Nezahualcóyotl, Mexico's quintessential self-help housing community, burst onto the national scene during the 1960s. During the late 1950s, a group of investors purchased more than sixty square kilometers of land east of Mexico City in an area in the state of México just outside the Federal District. The land in question, a dried lakebed, flooded during the rainy season and was prone to dust storms during the dry season. Nonetheless, investors created 160,000 low-income housing lots. By 1970 Nezahualcóyotl contained nearly 700,000 residents, but there were few public services.

Local governments have varied widely in the degree of support extended to self-help housing developments. Although the Federal District blocked most self-help housing after the early 1950s, the neighboring state of México actively encouraged the development of communities such as Nezahualcóyotl, in effect serving as a safety valve for Mexico City. Likewise, Guadalajara generally has endorsed such development as an appropriate response to the housing needs of the urban poor. By contrast, Monterrey and a number of other cities in northern Mexico have opposed self-help communities, a decision that has sparked frequent squatter invasions of ejido land. Local authorities sometimes have used force to dislodge the invaders, but often have tacitly allowed the new communities to remain.

Despite obvious problems, self-help housing has addressed numerous important and cross-cutting social issues. These communities substantially increase the housing stock available to low-income urban residents. As sociologists Alan Gilbert and Peter Ward have observed, without self-help construction, the government either would have to expend many more resources on housing projects or raise wages to enable the poor to compete in the formal housing market. By forcing people to build their own homes, the government has been able to preserve funds to underwrite industrial development. Self-help housing also allows lower-income residents to become owners rather than renters. And as self-help communities mature and residents add to initial structures, renters (typically poorer, younger, and more recently arrived in the city than owners) have housing options other than vecindades .

Even including self-help construction, however, Mexico faced a severe housing crisis in the mid-1990s. The Zedillo administration reported in 1995 that more than 25 percent of the 17.8 million houses needed to be repaired or replaced. Because two-thirds of the population are under thirty years of age, analysts project sharp increases in demand for new housing over the next two decades.

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