This reminded me of a friend in Tijuana who’d told me, with some excitement, that he, his two children, and his mother were moving into his brother’s “new house” east of Tijuana. How large was this house? “A kitchen and a bathroom. My brother’s building a bedroom next month.” My friend and his family have little money, but even if you drive through Tijuana’s middle-class neighborhoods you see, as del Angel described, homes in a constant state of construction. The materials used in rich and poor neighborhoods are invariably cement block, rebar, and plaster.
“Mexican banks won’t loan for anything made of wood,” said Franco Magdaleno with a bitter laugh. “That’s why almost everything you see in Mexico is made of cement. It’s not that Mexicans love cement block. It’s not that we think it’s the most beautiful building material in the world. It’s not aesthetics; it’s finance. It would be easier and cheaper to build with wood, but the banks won’t listen.
“I’m an engineer. I know what I’m talking about. I even developed a building material, using both cement and wood, for building homes. I developed it in conjunction with an American company in Georgia. It was cheaper and lighter than cement block. You could build a home with it more quickly than if you used cement block. It was an excellent product. And you would think that Mexico, which has an enormous housing crisis, would be interested, would need, a building material like that. I developed it especially for the Mexican market. But no. Mexican banks would not loan money for anything made with wood.
“Maybe they think that if people built houses with wood, they’d just burn them down for the insurance money. I don’t know.”
Magdaleno stared into his cup of coffee. “I hate banks.”
Last year, Magdaleno and I met one morning for coffee in the lobby of Hotel Pueblo Amigo, a popular spot with Tijuana entrepreneurs. Somewhere in the lobby, a caged parrot occasionally screamed like a human. People flinched. They started from their chairs. They chuckled. Kidnappings were and still are common among Tijuana’s middle and upper classes. Armed bodyguards stood at the hotel’s entrance. At the table next to ours, where a baby shower was in progress, several matrons, despite the early hour, ordered brandies. Magdaleno ordered coffee, black.
He is a serious, deliberate man, a civil engineer whose passion is the design, construction, and maintenance of pipelines. (He had in his coat pocket a brochure for a conference he planned to attend in Norway on “The Design and Installation Aspects of High-Strength Steel for Deep & Ultra-Deepwater Pipelines.”) Some years back Magdaleno participated in the construction of such a pipeline in Rosarito, and he spoke of the project as one of the best times in his life. As often as he can, he travels from Tijuana to pipeline conferences in Europe, Asia, South America, for “intellectual stimulation.”
Since the late 1960s Magdaleno has also dabbled in Tijuana real estate and is currently a member of Tijuana’s Association of Real Estate Agents, which has 50 members. (The San Diego Board of Realtors estimates that 12,000 real estate agents work in San Diego. But the comparison is unfair. In Mexico, real estate agents aren’t licensed, and so no one knows how many real estate agents practice in Tijuana.)
“Here, the majority of private homes,” said Magdaleno, “are sold by the owner directly to the buyer. Which is of course risky because you have to get the paperwork right. In Mexico, real estate transactions are handled through notaries, who are much more important than notaries in the United States. Mexican notaries check property registries to make sure that the house you’re buying truly belongs to the seller, that no one else has a claim on it. In America, when you buy a home you buy title insurance. There’s no title insurance in Mexico, so the notary’s work is very important. Most people, if they know what they’re doing, also hire an attorney to double-check what the notary does to make sure everything’s been handled properly.
“The process of selling real estate, however, really isn’t the problem. The problem is with the banks. Big developers who build big developments for the upper middle class and the wealthy can afford to offer their own financing. And their interest rates are usually much better than those offered by banks. But for other developers, those who can’t afford to carry large debt, the situation is impossible. They can build homes, but the loans offered by banks are too expensive. So there are actually people who own land, or who buy land, in the hopes that squatters will take it over. I’m sure you’ve heard of squatters here in Tijuana. People come from the Mexican interior to find work. There’s no housing for them. So they squat on undeveloped land.
“What happens next is that the landowner starts complaining to the government that there are squatters on his land. He wants the government to kick them out. So, maybe the police come, tell the people to leave. Then the squatters start protesting. Maybe the landowner even encourages the squatters to protest. Politics gets involved. And what the landowner hopes is that the government will give in to the squatters, buy the land from him, and give it to the squatters. It sounds complicated. But it’s one way of ‘developing’ land when it’s impossible to borrow money from a bank to build homes on it.
“I’ve always worked on a much smaller scale, building only a few homes at a time. There are ways of getting around the banks. The answer, I’ve found, is autofinanciamiento.”
I’d heard the term autofinanciamiento, “self-finance,” used by a number of people in Tijuana. I’d asked for an explanation but hadn’t understood what was said. In fact, I’d understood each individual word of what was said but couldn’t make sense of the whole scheme, the entire process of autofinanciamiento. It was too foreign. Not long after I spoke with Magdaleno, I went to the offices of Habiplan, one of three autofinanciamiento companies operating in Tijuana. Habiplan’s offices are in a part of Zona Rio where it’s difficult to buy a taco but easy to find sushi. A clothing store to the left of Habiplan sold Versace, Prada, Dolce Gabana, and Fendi. To the right, in an Internet cafe, young people in black clothes typed madly on a dozen or so brand-new PCs. In Habiplan’s gray-and-green lobby, large framed posters showed towheaded children hugging puppies or skipping through fields of flowers.