A casual visitor to Tijuana would have little reason to stumble upon a place like Villa del Prado. You get to it by heading southeast from the city's urban core, through miles of sparsely populated hills, junkyards and humble ranches.
When you get there, it looks like a small city, filled with row upon row of identical, one- and two-story units — 14,000 of them.
In Mexico, some people call these types of homes, “pichoneras,” or birdcages, because they’re so small. Many of the homes in Villa del Prado are around 300-square-feet.
But people like Ruth Betancourt bought into the idea of having their own home — even if it’s a tiny one — in a manicured neighborhood. Betancourt and her husband moved to Villa del Prado eight years ago from the state of Sinaloa.
Now, however, they and hundreds of thousands of other residents in developments like Villa del Prado are watching their neighborhoods decay and their neighbors flee.
In Villa del Prado, one out of four homes is abandoned, according to a study done by Provive, a firm that buys up abandoned homes and refurbishes them. Many of them have been severely vandalized, or taken over by vagrants and criminals.
“People get high in them,” Betancourt said, who has at least four abandoned homes on her cul-de-sac in Villa del Prado. “Sometimes they sleep in them and keep tabs on the neighbors’ comings and goings, so they can break into their homes and rob them.”
The 2008 global economic downturn combined with bad urban planning and other factors have led many lower-middle-class Mexicans to abandon their newly purchased homes in recent years. Provive estimates that there are 50,000 abandoned homes in Tijuana and some 600,000 across Mexico.
When Betancourt first moved to Villa del Prado with her husband and then-infant daughter, she said the neighborhood was peaceful.
“There weren’t many people,” Betancourt said. “Most of the houses weren’t yet occupied. It was a nice place, that’s why we picked it.”
At the time, those new, empty houses signaled hope: A fresh start, in a brand new suburban neighborhood, on the outskirts of a bustling metropolis.
This type of planned housing development sprang up on the outskirts of Mexican cities starting in the 1990s. Provive estimates that there are about 15 in Tijuana.
They're modeled on the American suburb, according to Larry Herzog, professor of city planning at San Diego State University.
“It’s often built because of fear of crime,” Herzog said. “People often want to get away from the city; they want to move somewhere where they feel safer.”
These suburbs were largely fueled by a government agency called Infonavit. Mexican employers pay into a fund managed by Infonavit, which is used to finance mortgages for Mexican workers.
The agency, created in 1972, seeks to combat the shoddy building and erratic urban expansion that have plagued cities like Tijuana. Infonavit financed many of the homes in Villa del Prado.
In the years after Betancourt and her family moved to Villa del Prado, the neighborhood filled up. Some residents opened restaurants, stores and Internet cafes on the ground floor of their homes. A street market emerged.
But recently, the neighborhood has begun to deteriorate. There are abandoned and vandalized homes on nearly every street.
Two that sit across the street from Betancourt’s house are missing doors and windows. The back room of one of the units is overflowing with trash. The walls of the other abandoned unit are covered with graffiti.
The neighborhood built on a dream of safety is now crime-ridden.
A variety of factors have led to the decay of Villa del Prado and other low-income suburbs, experts say. For one thing, like in the U.S., many people lost their jobs when the global economy tanked and could no longer pay their mortgages.
But distance has also played a role in the demise of some neighborhoods. Developers built where land was cheap and plentiful — sometimes far away from urban centers and shopping districts.
Builders and city planners hoped and expected the city to grow up around the neighborhoods, but Herzog said this often hasn’t happened.
“Other investors aren't coming in and building shopping centers. There are no clinics nearby, so people are very isolated,” he said.
Many residents don’t have cars and public transportation is often wanting.
But Betancourt said crime drove her neighbors away. She said one couple who used to live across the street moved out after armed robbers broke into the house, scaring the pregnant woman so badly that she miscarried.
Besides fomenting crime, abandoned units are a huge drag on the value of neighboring homes. Provive estimates that 2 million houses across Mexico are underwater because of the phenomenon.
Housing authorities are aware of these problems, and they admit they’ve made mistakes with the suburban model. They’re now trying to correct those mistakes.
“Our new goal is quality of life and quality surroundings,” said Alejandro Arregui, Infonavit’s delegate to Baja California.
Arregui said Infonavit is now focused on funding sustainable housing that's close to where people work, shop and recreate, and that has access to good public transportation.
In neighborhoods like Villa del Prado, Infonavit is working with private firms, like Provive and its nonprofit wing, Tú + Yo, to renovate homes and resell them, and to rehabilitate public spaces.
Provive has restored and resold more than 600 homes throughout Tijuana, said Antonio Diaz, the firm’s director.
The company only works in suburbs that it deems recoverable, measured by their proximity to workplaces and shopping areas and by the desire of residents to participate in neighborhood improvement projects.
The firm opened a branch in Mexicali earlier this year and is now expanding to Guadalajara and Monterrey.