[This article was originally published by Forbes.]
The affordable housing shortage is a big issue in America, one that’s just now getting the national attention it deserves. Millions of Americans are affected, including ones who endure longer commutes, more cramped dwellings, and more failing units than they otherwise would, if more decent housing were well-located.
But compared to Mexico, we have it good.
I learned about this firsthand on a weeklong visit in October to Mexico City (CDMX). It’s in many ways a spectacular urban agglomeration. The 21.2-million-person metro is dense, walkable, transit-rich, and genuinely beautiful in the wealthy neighborhoods, with their historic architecture and green space. But look below the surface at how the average Mexican lives, and you’ll find hardship – with much of it tied to the housing situation. Below are three common characteristics.
CDMX has an odd built form. Yes, it is dense and urban – but is also low-rise, sprawling and monocentric. Four central districts account for 53% of jobs, but house only 19% of the population. This means it’s a region of “dense sprawl” where millions of people board trains, buses or their own vehicles to head in one direction - from outlying suburbs into the core, and back at night.
This causes horrendous traffic. According to the engineering firm Inrix, the average CDMX driver loses 218 hours per year to congestion (compared to 133 in New York City and 128 in Los Angeles). While in America the notion of “super-commuting” (one-way commutes of 90+ minutes) is the plight of an unlucky few, in CDMX it’s rampant across the working class, with commutes often extending to 2, 3 or even 4 hours.
The result is that CDMX remains low-slung, rather than having the skyline of a New York City or Toronto. There is limited housing in the core; instead people live far from where they wish to be.
The average household size in the U.S. is 2.5 people; in Mexico it’s 3.7. The average housing size and per capita land consumption is also far smaller in CDMX than any U.S. city. This means an awful lot of people live crammed together.
The larger context is that Mexico has been urbanizing, with many people from rural areas flooding into CDMX and other cities in search of jobs and housing. One common housing type the government subsidized in response is the widely-derided “mini-casas” – 325sqft homes that house whole families (and in many cases extended families). As the Los Angeles Times profiled, these tiny homes contain one bedroom that whole families live in, a small kitchen and bathroom, and a living room where other beds sometimes sit. Other household items are, for lack of space, put on the roof. While found across Mexico, I saw some mini-casas in CDMX’s working-class barrios.
In addition to being small and remote, much of the housing is substandard. A 2016 study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico found the problem particularly acute in Mexico’s southern region.
“One-third of residents live in homes with laminate or metal roofing while 10% have dirt floors. Less than half have access to running water and sewer systems,” wrote Mexico News Daily, citing the report.
While housing conditions in CDMX and further north are better, a surprisingly high percentage of them still don’t have these basic features that Americans take for granted.
At the root of these problems is poverty, both individually and within the government. Mexico remains a Third World nation, and even CDMX, outside the core neighborhoods, is visibly poor. Nationwide GDP per capita is under $10,000 – not the sort of earnings that will buy a nice home – and the Mexican government doesn’t have the money to fill those gaps. It has tried through a $100 billion national program to build large amounts of social housing, but that initiative was plagued with shoddy contractors and construction. A decade later, many projects are caving in and have been abandoned.
The key to spurring more housing in CDMX and throughout Mexico that is of better quality is to “increase demand” – aka raise incomes. Until then, many Mexicans will struggle to find decent housing. This is especially true in CDMX, where the most-needed housing – high-rise, steel-frame infill – also happens to be the most expensive to build. The key, along with lifting incomes, will be for CDMX to loosen regulations, organize more transparent government programs, and encourage alternative housing models. Then maybe average Mexicans can enjoy the relative housing luxury that most Americans, for all our housing dramas, now do.