Squatters gamble against collapse of quake-damaged buildings

Monday, April 14, 2003

MEXICO CITY -- Silvia Perez knows that at any moment her apartment building, damaged in a devastating 1985 earthquake, could collapse in a heap of crushed cement and twisted steel. But she and her family stay anyway. It's the only place they can afford.

"I live here out of necessity. ... We don't earn enough to go anywhere else," said Perez, 23, one of more than 300 people illegally squatting in a two-story building in the capital's historic center.

Perez's home is in one of the 425 buildings in Mexico City that authorities say are no longer safe to live in. The structures, all more than 50 years old and with foundations that were severely weakened by the 8.1-magnitude quake, have been condemned for more than a decade.

Seventeen of the condemned buildings are home to thousands of permanent residents like Perez, said Luis Wintergerst, head of the city's emergency services. Thousands more homeless people sleep in other unsafe buildings from one night to the next, he said.

On April 5, a condemned five-story brick and concrete apartment building in the Vista Allegre neighborhood collapsed without warning on a sunny afternoon. No one was injured, but only because none of the 60 people who lived there were home.

The city had already purchased that building and was planning to move the families living there elsewhere long enough to demolish it and build new housing.

Two days after that collapse, Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador announced a plan to expropriate and destroy the 14 condemned buildings known to be sheltering squatters. The city will also destroy 50 other buildings engineers have deemed likely to collapse soon, he said.

The mayor said the city will use the newly created space to build modern compounds offering modest apartments and will provide loans of between $14 and $24,300 to the new tenants.

According to the plan, those receiving loans will have 30 years to pay them back, but must pay the equivalent of 15 percent of their monthly earnings to rent the new apartments.

It remains unclear how many loans they will offer, or how much money will go to each family.

Despite the city's plan, social groups worry that many former squatters will be turned down for loans and will be unable to afford to rent new apartments.

About 30 million of the estimated 72.4 million Mexicans who live in urban areas earn less than $4 a day. The number of squatters has risen as poor people move to cities looking for work, said Rodolfo de la Torre, a researcher at Mexico City's Iberoamericana University.

Perez's building is among those slated to be destroyed. It's a grandiose, two-story cement structure that was built in the 1930s to serve as the headquarters of the Aleman Casino, a social and sporting club.

Later the building became a meeting hall for farming groups, but it was abandoned after the 1985 quake.

Perez, 23, arrived in Mexico City in 1992 with a group of penniless Triqui Indians from the southern state of Oaxaca. With nowhere else to go, they took up residence in the former social club.

The walls and ceilings of her apartment are lined with cracks and the rooms where she and her two small children sleep are badly slanted because of the building's insecure foundation. But at least it's a home.

Perez makes about $5 a day selling homemade bracelets, necklaces and other Indian trinkets on the street. Like many of her neighbors, she is doubtful about the government plan.

"Even though this house doesn't belong to me, I feel like it does," she said. "If the government wants me out of here, they will have to pay my rent because we don't have the resources to pay on our own. We probably never will."

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