The problem of social housing

Economic, migratory and health crises coupled with poverty and perennial inequality in the countries of the global south are the great challenges that architects, urban planners and policy makers have to face from an innovative and interdisciplinary perspective to solve the housing problem...

Architects like to build unique things. The value of their work lies in the uniqueness and exclusivity. But if there is a problem with the unique, it is that it cannot be repeated and if it is not repeated it cannot serve many people in different places.

For the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena (perhaps the most socially committed Pritzker Prize-winning architect) the main objective of the architect is to improve the way of life of people, evaluating both their social needs and human desires, as well as political, economic and environmental.

The housing of the most disadvantaged continues to be a challenge for cities and their rulers. The supply of social housing is currently a problem faced by many countries, although its intensity varies according to the economic and social characteristics of each region.

Various causes act as factors that exacerbate the problem of social housing. For example, due to the increasing improvement in health conditions, the application and expansion of medical services and a series of other factors, the birth rate has risen and the death rate has fallen in the last 50 years.

The problem, moreover, is particularly serious in developing countries, because due to structural deficiencies inherent to their state of development, they are not capable of responding to population growth with decent and adequate housing in sufficient numbers. Another current problem is that of mass migration. Rivers of people that cross entire countries to suddenly run into a wall.

Countries in the Middle East, North Africa, Central America, or like Venezuela and Haiti where tens of thousands of people are forced to leave their towns because their governments do not guarantee them a decent and prosperous life, they are going through political instability, economic crises, security, violation of their rights, etc.

Mexico does not escape this situation that has been getting worse and acquires singular importance in the main urban centers, especially in CDMX. In the last 70 years, millions of inhabitants from all the states of the republic have come to the Capital in search of better living conditions. This has caused the city to grow disproportionately and disorderly.

This can be well apprehended in the work of the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who documents the domestic life of several families who moved to Mexico City and where he describes the modifications in the psyche of rural Mexicans that take place during the change of life. rural to urban life. He wrote several books, with ethnographic evidence, on poverty in modern Mexico in the 20th century.

Among other things, he tells us about the variety of activities and social interaction in the central patios and the streets that surround the neighborhoods of Mexico City.

Children playing, the ladies washing and hanging clothes next to food stalls, a carpentry shop and a beauty salon. Next to the market and public toilets. Narrow entrances with doors open all day, but closed at night. Protected by an altar of the patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe. With offerings of flowers and candles that surround the images in a glass box.

It's hard to understand how his study of him in the 1960s, of these immigrants and the town they came from, who became the underclass of the city, is still relevant today. But at the same time this permanence does not surprise us.

In terms of housing at the national level, according to the INEGI National Housing Survey 2020, of the 35.3 million inhabited private homes registered, almost 70% do not exceed 100m2 built, and 28% do not exceed 55m2 built. Only 57% of the homes are owned, the rest are rented, borrowed or paid for. The source of financing, of the total number of owned homes (acquired new or used), 48% came from Infonavit.

According to this same survey, satisfaction with the distance-time between housing and schools, 58% say they are very satisfied and 52% in relation to work. Regarding the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, 52% had problems with the payment of the housing loan, and 51% had problems with the payment of rent.

These data show us an overview of the current housing situation in the country. These results are relevant for the planning and elaboration of public policy taking into account the most disadvantaged sector.

Is it possible that the idealization of certain built structures is not considered in the design of public housing policies? Are the materials used to build the house renewable and sustainable? Are green areas an ornament or a necessity? Are the sources of financing for a home sufficient? Can everyone have access to a mortgage loan?

These and other questions are relevant to understand why housing is perceived as a problem and not as the solution to the development of the territory.

Another important point is housing based on the Infonavit construction ideal when the “experimental housing centers” were created in the second half of the last century.

A decade before the Infonavit Iztacalco Unit was inaugurated in 1974, large housing infrastructure projects had already been carried out in Mexico City, such as the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco Urban Complex or the San Juan de Aragón Complex.

Tlatelolco as a macro-housing complex was conceived and carried out fully under the ideas of the modern movement, with 15,000 houses distributed in multi-family buildings of different heights, 1,000 inhabitants per hectare, 75% of green areas and all services integrated in the buildings.

In contrast, the Conjunto San Juan de Aragón was the result of improving the conditions of vulnerable low-income groups by relocating 120,000 settlers from peripheral areas of Mexico City. In total there were 18,000 single-family homes around a large park with green spaces including a neighborhood center, neighborhood center and sports fields.

Today the housing complexes built by Infonavit, in the second half of the last century, are a great frame of reference for rethinking and reinventing social housing.

When asked about collective housing, Anne Lacaton (Pritzker Prize 2021) said that the starting point “(…) is the conditions for living. (...) and not the other way around. You don't have to start from the urban, from the density, from the form, and then inside of that.”

The conditions to inhabit the house are those things that make us feel good, where people want to live. That it be generous, enlightened, but also economic (that everyone can have access to decent housing). And then move on to the problem of density, because today it is very important to save land. But density should not be the criterion for reducing individual space.

In social housing, social relationships between neighbors are very important. With the most topical issue, the crisis triggered by Covid-19, and where many of us are forced to stay at home, we understood that social housing becomes a central issue and that it requires solutions to re-convert the minimum space of the housing-bedroom in multipurpose spaces where to live, work, study, recreation and physical activity, and where common areas and relationships between neighbors become essential. Like those stories reminiscent of Lewis.

To all those interested in housing and the territory: let's learn to reduce risks, use atlases, indicators, data, evidence and other cartographies from official sources, as well as those generated by neighborhoods and localities, as a basis for planning and developing solutions of financing and planning of social housing.

The scarcity of decent and low-cost housing, and the difficulties that a large percentage of the population has in gaining access to it, brings to the table a debate for which innovative solutions must be thought of from an interdisciplinary perspective, that is, from the field of urban planning, architecture, sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics and public policy to solve it.

The new forms of habitability and spatial distribution must form a core part of the political agenda in a program of urban remodeling and regeneration with the aim of improving habitability conditions in cities and urban centers.


Hernández Gálvez, Alejandro. Pessac de Le Corbusier, en Revista Arquine, 19 agosto 2020. URL:

Adriá, Miquel. Vivienda Colectiva, en Revista Arquine No. 94, Invierno 2020.

Lewis, Oscar. Antropología de la Pobreza. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Kochen, Juan José (ed.) Vivienda Infonavit: Densidad. México: Infonavit, CIDS.