In Mexico, millions of homes stand empty. They are the legacy of a shift in housing policy in the 1990s, through which saw the state step away from social housing production in favour of market-oriented development, with the aim of providing affordable homes for the country’s workers of the formal sectorworkers.
Attractive mortgages were offered to low-income households and state-backed loans and subsidy programmes for house building companies resulted in a residential construction boom. Between 2001 and 2012, more than 10 million units were built through this policy, mainly in urban peripheries and in some rural municipalities. Of the 2.2 million units built between 2014 and 2017 with financing from housing funds, just 8% were within existing urban boundaries. The rest were built on marginal land far away from services, jobs and educational opportunities and with poor or unfinished infrastructure.
In many cases, homeowners found themselves tied to rising mortgages on undesirable or uninhabitable homes. Some left but continued to pay their mortgage while trying to rent the dwelling or leaving it empty, while others abandoned the property and the mortgage in search of a better location in which to live.
The problem is particularly acute in Tlajomulco de Zúñiga, a suburban municipality of Guadalajara Metropolitan Area, in Jalisco state, where the population rose from 25,000 to 727,500 inhabitants between 2000 and –2020. This rise is directly linked to the 200,000 low-income mortgages that were issued there during this period. In the 2020 national census, 77,709 homes were identified as empty, making Tlajomulco de Zúñiga the municipality with the third highest number of empty homes in Mexico.
Empty homes have a very negative impact on society, especially for people who continue to live in the neighbourhood. In some developments, empty properties have been vandalised or occupied for criminal use, which further devaluateding the area and creatinged an unsafe environment for residents.
Renta tu Casa (Rent Your Home) is a programme run by Tlajomulco de Zúñiga municipal government, through which seeks toit addresses the empty homes crisis while supplying very affordable housing for people in need. It is the first municipal programme in Mexico that turns privately– owned empty homes into low-cost rental accommodation for vulnerable groups. These include homeless people, victims of domestic or gender-based violence, the elderly, people with disabilities, and migrants.
In the first three years of the programme, 265 people were housed in 85 homes across 30 different neighbourhoods. The municipal government plans to integrate 65 more empty dwellings into the programme, including a further 65 homes by the end of 2022.
The project in practice
The project was inspired by social rental agencies operating in Europe and was adapted by Tlajomulco de Zúñiga municipal government to address local challenges.
The authority uses public media campaigns to advertise the programme and attract homeowners to register their empty properties. Once a home is registered, a suitable tenant is quickly found from a list of potential beneficiaries.
The municipality pays the homeowner a rentn agreed at market rate as rent – to a maximum of $3,000 MXN ($150 USD) per month – depending on the size, characteristics, and location of the property. This is paid even if the home becomes vacant while in the programme, for example during retrofitnovation works or when tenants change, giving the homeowner a secure income to pay off their mortgage or other expenses. At the end of the rental contract, homeowners can choose to renew or leave the programme.
People wishing to register with the programme as a beneficiary go through an interview process to establish their needs and housing preferences. A priority waiting list is made based on the outcomes of this process. When a suitable property becomes available, the household visits the home with staff members to confirm their interest. An occupation tenancy agreement is then signed with the municipal government.
Beneficiaries must contribute a token rent of $350 MXN ($17 USD) per month. In addition to this, they are required to carry out five hours of community work in their neighbourhood each month. If they are unable to pay their rental contribution, and can prove it 15 days advance, the payment can be substituted with an additional five hours of community work. This exemption can be implemented as many times as necessary.
Occupation agreements Contracts reneware renewed every six months, provided that the home is being kept in good condition and payments are up to date. There is no limit on the number of times athe contractn agreement can be renewed, as long as the home is kept in the programme by the homeowner.
The programme also helps to renovate homes that have been empty for long periods and require improvements to offer better achieve decent living conditions. The municipal government pays 50% of the total cost of the works and the other 50% is deducted from the first 24 rental payments received by the homeowner. This encourages more owners who have empty homes in disrepair to sign up to the programme and alsoand helps to improve the general condition of the neighbourhoods in which Renta tu Casa is active. This subsidy has been used to renovate 14 of the 85 homes integrated into the programme so far.
Renta tu Casa is funded by the municipal government of Tlajomulco de Zúñiga and managed by the Municipal Institute for the Improvement of Habitat (IMHAB) General Directorate for Culture of Peace and Co-responsibility. In 2021, the programme’s annual budget was $1.5 million MXN ($75,000 USD), which represents 0.06 % of the authority’s total annual budget.
In the first three years of the programme, the municipality invested $3 million MXN ($150,000 USD) in rental payments to homeowners and $1 million MXN ($50,000 USD) in housing renovation subsidies.
The municipality has recovered approximately 24% of the programme costs so far: $450,000 MXN ($22,500 USD) through beneficiaries’ monthly rental contributions, and $500,000 MXN ($25,000 USD) through the payment of arrears owed to the authority by homeowners. These payments are deducted from the municipality’s rental instalments to owners until their debt is cleared.
IMHABThe municipal government hopes to attract additional funding from foundations or international organisations and is dialoguing in negotiations with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), so refugees and migrants can also participatebe included in the programme.
A new municipal urban planning instrument will enable more houses to be integrated into the programme. Under new rules, private developers will be allowed to build housing projects with a higher density than specified in the local land-use plan, if they agree to donate homes to the Renta tu Casa programme. These homes can be in the new development, or they can be existing homes owned by the developer that meet the programme’s standards.
Social and environmental impact
Renta tu Casa is a win-win strategy for homeowners and society at large. The programme is part of a comprehensive housing policy from the municipal government that aims to solve problems relating to connectivity, employment, services, facilitiesinfrastructure, urban regeneration, and housing alternatives. As such, the programme works closely with municipal employment agencies, social services, and the National System for the Comprehensive Development of Families Development Institute. Renta tu Casa is also linked with the Ministry for Substantive Equality between Women and Men of the State of Jalisco, which manages shelters and provides social and legal assistance for women who are victims of domestic and gender-based violence.
The inclusion of a large municipal rent subsidy in the programme allows vulnerable people with very low incomes to access a safe and secure home, which they would be unable to afford on the open market. Of the beneficiaries so far,: 29% were previously living in homelessness shelters, staying with relatives, or squatting; 33% are adults over the age of 65; 35% have a sensory, motor, or mental disability; and 16% are women who have been victims of domestic or gender-based violence.
The average beneficiary household’s income is $3,210 MXN ($160 USD) per month and $2,342 MXN ($117 USD) per month for households with only one income earner. For the latter, the rent amount established by the programme represents 15% of the household’s total income, which makes it easier for them to attend to other needs, such as healthcare. A high percentage of beneficiaries comply with their contributions (87%), which shows that rent is affordable.
The community work aspect of the programme not only provides tenants with certainty about their housing situation, but also facilitates important interactions with neighbours and accelerates integration. Examples of community work include supporting local cultural and recreational activities for children and maintenance of public spaces in the neighbourhood.
It is expected that some people will remain permanently in the programme – such as lonely elderly people, who have limited incomes and health issues – so Renta tu Casa provides them with personal support and ongoing monitoring of their needs.
The main environmental contribution of the programme is the use of existing housing and basic infrastructure, which removes the need to build new homes. The renovation and use of abandoned properties also reduces sources of infection due to the accumulation of rubbish inside and outside the homes. As the urban environment is improved, so is the health and perception of the neighbourhood.
Transfer and expansion
The municipal government of Tlajomulco de Zúñiga intends to expand Renta tu Casa to transform it into a by setting up a Public Social Rentalal Estate Agency, which will include homes leased from owners under the current scheme in addition to homes donated by developers in exchange for enhanced building rights, or directly purchased by the municipality.
The success of the programme is influencing policy at state level, where a new standard for municipalities in the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area inspired by Renta tu Casa couldaims to significantly reduce the number of vacant homes through social rental programmes. Other Mexican municipalities ruled by the Movimiento Ciudadano party, such as Monterrey, are also looking to replicate the programme.
The empty homes crisis is vast in scale but with this programme, Tlajomulco de Zúñiga has created a sustainable solution for vulnerable people excluded from housing policies and the real estate market. It is replicable not only in Mexico but throughout Latin America, where the same mass-production of housing policy has led to similar problems in several countries.