Mexico struggles with shortages on the homefront

President Fox has set a goal of doubling annual housing starts by 2006.

Carla Najera can hardly believe that the five years she, her husband, and their small son have lived shoehorned into her in-laws' house are about to end.

"Moving into our own place is simply a dream come true," she says while touring a 540-square-foot model like the town house she and her husband just bought.

The Najeras are indeed among the fortunate.

Some experts estimate that Mexico is 5 million housing units short. The housing crisis is most acute along the border with the US, where the booming assembly and manufacturing sectors attract hundreds of thousands of Mexicans from other parts of the country every year.

Mexican border specialists increasingly see solving the housing crisis as a way to keep productive Mexicans from abandoning their country for the US.

"Mexicans can find good jobs and earn a decent living on our side of the border," says Ernesto Ruffo, Mexican President Vicente Fox's point man on the northern border. "But if they can't provide their families a decent place to live, they are going to continue thinking there's something better on the other side."

President Fox has set the ambitious goal of more than doubling annual housing starts over his six-year term, from last year's 320,000 to 750,000 by 2006.

The housing crunch has many causes. Credit dried up after Mexico's peso crisis in 1995 and is only now becoming available again, as the country's financial institutions regain strength. The economic downturn left the government with scant resources for public housing schemes.

Mexico's centralized public finance structure leaves municipalities strapped to extend water, sewage, and paving to new areas and spur development.

Housing experts say more public-private initiatives like the one that yielded the Najeras' new home is one answer. Creating a secondary mortgage market, like the US has, would also help, they say, adding that Mexico also needs to make it easier for nonprofit organizations to help poor families build their own, decent housing.

Ciudad Juarez, a humming industrial city of more than 1.3 million across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, has one of the country's most severe housing crunches - 70,000 units short.

"Just to keep up with the incoming population we'd have to build 10,000 houses a year, and that would do nothing for the thousands already living in unacceptable conditions," says Jose Luis Garza, Juarez director of Infonavit, the Mexican government's largest mortgage financing program.

Hovel towns built from wooden pallets and roofing paper have sprung up on the flat desert periphery. Residents wait for water trucks to pass to fill their plastic buckets, and tap into pirated electrical lines that snake across the desert floor.

"It's not so much a problem of quantity as one of quality," says David Arelle, president of Condak-Pulte, one of northern Mexico's largest home builders.

"The numbers don't mean all those families are out on the streets, but they are in substandard housing or overcrowded conditions."

Mr. Arelle, whose company works with Infonavit and large local companies to build employer-assisted housing, says one good sign is that the government is changing its vision of housing.

"Before, the government saw its housing programs as spending." he says. "Now the attitude is much more that it's an investment."

The government is beginning to understand that decent housing means higher employment and social stability, children staying in school longer, and less Mexican talent lost to emigration, he says.

Condak-Pulte builds housing in Juarez for Delphi, the auto-parts supplier. While Delphi's assembly workforce has a 10 percent monthly turnover rate - typical for the border's maquiladoras, or assembly plants - Delphi's turnover among participants in the company's employer-assisted housing program is only about 1 percent a year.

Delphi helps with the monthly payments, and the company also loans the 20 percent down payment on a program house for the qualifying worker who can't afford it. If the employee stays with Delphi five years, the loan is forgiven.

"Good jobs and good housing equal stability," says Michael Hissam, spokesman for Delphi in Juarez. By the time its program is complete, Delphi plans to have built 7,000 houses in seven Mexican cities.

Still, other housing specialists say Mexico needs a wider variety of housing options.

In Tijuana, a maquiladora border city like Juarez, at least 200,000 factory workers are shut out of traditional low-cost housing because they're salaries are too low.

"We need to find ways to provide housing to this population now so we can stop this problem of having whole neighborhoods of substandard and serviceless houses," says Carlos Graizbord, director of Tijuana's Planning Institute.

With its population expected to nearly double to 2 million by 2020, Tijuana is identifying and preparing for legal development thousands of acres that might otherwise have followed the more typical course of squatter development.

But Mr. Graizbord and others say the border's greatest need is to create new ways of financing housing for low-income workers. Creating tax incentives to stimulate nonprofit housing organizations is one idea.

Since almost two-thirds of new jobs are now in the informal economy, Maria Luisa Garcia Amaral, an urban studies expert at Juarez's autonomous university, says employer-based programs will not apply to most families.

About half of Juarez's existing housing stock was owner-built. With in-migration continuing from rural regions of Mexico, where self-construction remains a strong tradition, experts like Ms. Garcia say housing solutions must also include incentives and improvement loans for those who build their own home.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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