Share story

ZUMPANGO, Mexico — In an enormous housing development on the edge of this scrappy commuter town, Lorena Serrano’s 11-foot-wide shoebox of a home is flanked by abandoned houses. The neighborhood has two schools, a few bodegas and a small community center that offers zumba classes.

There is very little else.

“There are no jobs, no cinema, no cantina,” said Serrano of the 8,000-home development, called La Trinidad. Her husband’s commute to the capital, Mexico City, about 35 miles south, takes two hours each way by bus and consumes a quarter of his salary, she said. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

Serrano, 39, is among more than 5 million Mexicans who, in the past decade, bought houses through a government program that made mortgages available to low-income buyers.

The program, initially hailed by some experts as the answer to Mexico’s chronic housing deficit, fueled a frenzy of construction and helped inspire similar efforts in Latin America and beyond, including Brazil’s “My House, My Life,” which aims to build at least 3 million homes by this year.

But the concrete sprawl around Mexico City and other big towns grew faster than demand. Commutes proved unbearable, and residents abandoned their homes.

“We started off with dormitory towns, and we ended up with ghost towns,” said Gabriela Alarcón, director of urban development at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a research organization in Mexico City.

As cities in the increasingly urbanized developing world struggle to provide housing for low-income workers, Mexico’s housing saga illustrates the drawbacks of building developments with little heed to location or sustainability, she said.

“You solve one problem but you create a series of other problems,” Alarcón said.

Building spree

President Enrique Peña Nieto — who, as governor of Mexico state from 2005 to 2011, presided over a building spree that included the developments here in Zum­pango — rejected the model of suburban sprawl embraced by two previous opposition governments soon after he came to power in December 2012.

Calling the “uncontrolled expansion” of low-rise suburbs “unviable and unsustainable,” Peña Nieto said government financing would go to compact, high-rise developments.

Zumpango, whose heart is the 16th-century Purísima Concepción Church, is grappling with the pangs of a changing population. Even though thousands of homes have been abandoned, the population has more than doubled during the past 15 years, said Abel N. Domínguez Azuz, the mayor. The 2010 census put the population at 159,000; the mayor says he thinks it is nearly double that.

Construction companies built 36 developments, putting up houses faster than they, or the municipal government, could install a water supply, sewers, electricity and street lamps, he said. Many are unfinished, and now that the developers have gone bust, work is paralyzed, Dominguez said.

“They brought the people first, and then they built the infrastructure,” he said. “It should have been the other way round.”

The developments around Zumpango sit in a desolate expanse of open scrubland, with high perimeter walls that contain stark lattices of identical houses. Not all are as scruffy as La Trinidad, which was aimed at poorer buyers, but they share an eerie, treeless quiet with little commerce, traffic or pedestrians.

Thousands of homeowners have returned to the capital, leaving their houses prey to squatters and criminals. About 14 percent of Mexico’s 35 million homes are unoccupied; in Zumpango, that number is closer to 40 percent, according to research published last year by the Spanish bank BBVA.

Lack of transportation

Luis Zamorano, an urban development expert at Embarq, a group based in Mexico City that promotes sustainable cities, said that linking residents in the developments to the cities where they worked would require heavy investment in suburban public transportation. The housing developments attracted a lot of young families seeking a home of their own, he said, but those families were now far from their relatives and raising children in areas with few jobs or colleges.

“It’s a time bomb,” he said.

Serrano said she and husband moved to La Trinidad so they could live independently. Now he spends weeknights with his mother, leaving her alone with their 13-year-old son.

Like millions of Mexicans, they bought their house with a loan from the federal institute for workers’ housing, known as Infonavit. The institute acts as a housing fund for private-sector workers and accounts for about two-thirds of all mortgages in Mexico.

Crime has risen in the development, Serrano said: There was the middle-age man, about four doors away, who was strangled last year; the young man stabbed in the Saturday market; the friend whose house was burglarized when she was in the hospital; and the neighbor beaten by muggers as she walked home one night.

In a bid to stop the sprawl, Peña Nieto’s government suspended subsidies for construction far from city centers — effectively devaluing land bought by construction companies and used as collateral. Two of Mexico’s biggest developers, Corporación Geo and Desarrolladora Homex, have filed for bankruptcy.

Under Peña Nieto’s government, subsidies and mortgages will now be focused on improving and expanding existing houses. Of about 600,000 mortgages that Infonavit plans to offer this year, a third will be for home improvements.

But while Peña Nieto’s support for compact cities is a good step, some experts say, inexpensive housing in places like Mexico City will remain a fantasy without big government subsidies or changes to make land cheaper.

“Without measures to make land less expensive, you end up with compact cities for the rich,” said Enrique Ortiz Flores, project coordinator for Habitat International Coalition-Latin America, an umbrella group concerned with housing rights.

In her lilac-painted living room, Serrano said she hoped pledges to bring jobs to Zumpango would come to something. She doubts her house is worth the $20,000 she paid for it, so, for the moment, she is stuck in it.

“You have to come to terms with what you have,” Serrano said. When your house has paper-thin walls, having no neighbors has its upside, she added.

“At least I don’t have to listen to their noise,” she said.