39 The Role of Informal Housing in Mexico: Applications in Canada [full paper]

Mandy Hansen


This adaptation of a larger research study examines the intersections of the economy, property rights, land use, and housing within a tourism destination context. Housing is a human need, and when neither the public nor the private sectors are providing it, people will provide it for themselves in the form of self-help housing. Accommodation within informal settlements is an important segment of the housing market, and in many developing nations, the majority of housing that is available to the poor and working classes. The question then becomes not how to prevent informal housing but how to manage it.

A substantial component of the housing stock in the study locale of Mazatlán, Mexico originated as informal settlements, and that most of those have now been serviced and incorporated into the community. The study’s GIS analysis revealed that housing parcel sizes for the poor and working classes has remained modest over time. This focus on dense housing development and minimal urban streetscape improvements can be considered as part of housing strategies in other locations as they address their burgeoning informal housing crises. Allowing informal settlement, while not ideal, may bridge the gap until such time as formal provision is mobilized to meet the human need for shelter.

Key words: housing, slums, economics, Mexico, Mazatlan, urban planning



This paper is an adaptation of one of the findings from the researcher’s Doctoral dissertation (Hansen, 2021). The findings are believed to have widespread relevance to the issues of housing and land use in locations beyond Mazatlán, Mexico. This paper examines the role of informal housing as found in Mazatlán, and the learnings that can be applied towards housing challenges found in Canada.

Housing is a human need, and when neither the public nor the private sectors are providing it, people will provide it for themselves in the form of self-help housing. Informal settlements are defined as dense communities created outside of the legal structures of the state, generally in response to economic realities that hinder participation in the formal housing markets (Alsayyad, 1993). They may have one or more of the following characteristics: lack of legal status, infrastructure deficiencies, no approvals or permits by authorities having jurisdiction, or the dwelling is not built to standards (Siembieda and Moreno, 1997, p. 657).

Informal development, or squatting as Brueckner and Selod (2009) term it, is a component of the housing market in many countries. It is a symptom of a dysfunctional housing market that is not meeting all citizens’ needs for a variety of reasons (p. 29). Regardless of its origins, the accommodation within informal settlements is an important segment of the housing market, and in many developing nations, the majority of housing that is available to the poor and working classes. The question then becomes not how to prevent informal housing but how to manage it, including considerations around placement and location.

Mexico’s experience with widespread informal housing commenced in the mid-1900s spurred by population growth and urbanization (Bredenoord & Verkonen, 2009). They settled in urban areas creating informal housing developments that are called invasions locally. The majority of Mazatlán’s housing stock originated as invasions; however, most have been regularized since their development and now are considered standard neighbourhoods.

The research found that housing in Mazatlán is dense, and land parcels for housing are small, under 200 square meters in size. Streetscape improvements are minimal, as are private yard spaces. Informants indicated that the demand for housing was met by supply at all economic strata, and informal housing was an important component of the affordable segment of the marketplace. Informal housing was and remains an important component of the housing continuum.

The findings here can help formulate approaches to informal settlement management within Mexico and beyond. Mexico’s approach of tacit approval of squatting has helped alleviate pressure on the government for the delivery of affordable housing. The authorities allowed the immediate need for shelter to be addressed at the time, and now are following behind to fill in the missing pieces of infrastructure and paperwork. They also maintain a minimal level of requirements in terms of urban design and streetscape improvements for new developments, which helps maintain affordability. These findings can assist policy makers elsewhere as they address their own housing crises; re-examining their policies and processes regarding housing development in light of the need is necessary, otherwise a rise in informal settlements is inevitable. While the wicked problem of affordable housing is far from solved, the experiences detailed in this research in Mazatlán, Mexico, can offer some insights as to new (old) approaches to housing creation.

Leading Literature

The larger interdisciplinary research project draws on a number of disciplines to inform the research question, the field of inquiry, and the theoretical standing. Leading voices in the interrelated fields of economics, property rights, land use, and housing were all explored for this paper. The exclusionary nature of land allocation is by necessity – land cannot be used by different users at the same time. Choices are made, and this paper examines the impacts to housing allocation or non-allocation as the case may be.


For this exercise, the researcher draws upon Ratcliff’s 1949 volume entitled Urban Land Economics. While some of the applications and policy responses to Ratcliff’s theories have evolved, the concept definitions stand the test of time. Land is unique as compared to other commodities: it is immobile, scarce, and heterogeneous, meaning each property is individually valued and used relative to the lands around it. As a result, the location is a significant contributor to the desirability of that land: “quality of location or situs is an important determinant of economic value” (Ratcliff, 1949, p. 283).

Ratcliff goes on to say that land is a commodity that is traded in an open market, and that the “urban land market is an integral part of the contemporary private-enterprise system” (1949, p. 280). There are buyers and sellers, just like any other commodity, and the price of that commodity is the specific point where a buyer is willing to buy and a seller is willing to sell. This is an oversimplification that leaves out myriad individual circumstances, but for the purposes of the study it suffices to speak in generalities. If there are more buyers than sellers, the price increases as buyers compete for the asset. If there are more sellers than buyers, then the price declines as sellers compete for purchasers. This is a basic economic concept that applies to land just as any other commodity within a market system.

This study draws on the theories of institutional economics, as opposed to neoclassical or neoliberal economics, in the translation of urban land economic concepts into policy responses. This school of thought aligns well with the ontological and epistemological positions of this study, looking at constructivism and pragmatism within the context of real-world applications. In this sense, institutional economics’ principles that the theories be practical, that they draw from a variety of disciplines, that institutions have a significant role to play rather than just the individual as an agent, and that the economies are open and evolving systems, are well suited to the task at hand (Hodgson, 2000). The economy and its elements are not immutable natural forces; rather, they are human constructs that reflect the values, context, and societies that they serve. Economic theory and practice are value-laden, as postulated by Gunnar Myrdal (Hodgson, 2000, p. 319). Institutional economics also embraces the concept of power, especially the idea of institutions as wielders of structural power.

Property Rights

Property rights are the manifestation of the economy within and upon the land. Rights are a mechanism of the state, established and enforced by laws. Furubotn and Pejovich (1972) define property rights in the community “as the set of economic and social relations defining the position of each individual with respect to the utilization of scarce resource” (p. 1139). They assert that “Roman Law, Common Law, Marx and Engels, and current legal and economic studies basically agree on this definition of property rights” (p. 1139). Ratcliff (1949) notes that real estate markets trade in rights, not property per se, which are subject to the social and legal institutions that define them (p. 6).

Access to lands need not be through property rights, however. Razzaz (1993) outlines a variety of claims on land “based on perceptions of interest, citizenship, justice, history, etc.” (p. 341). These claims to property do not need to be based on a traditional holding. They can manifest as protections of entitlements or in the exertion of control over land. Through this, claimants legitimate existing claims to make them rights (p. 342). Indeed, “non-compliance with some aspect of the law (de facto possession in particular) has been one of the few avenues through which disadvantaged groups have been able to gain access to land and housing” (p. 345).

Property rights, or indeed economic structures, are not stagnant. They are social constructs and change and advance in response to pressures from the societies they serve. Land use and urban planning mechanisms allocate property rights based on economic power. This power is often based on existing ownership structures, allowing the landed class to dictate the provision of housing and services to the poor and working class. The economics of property rights are applied on the ground – literally – in land use planning.

Land Use

Land use planning is the articulation of human geography in the form of strategic and tactical plans that guide future development activities. One of the planner’s roles is to create a viable environment where citizens can live and work, while achieving equity and efficiency (Chakrabarty, 2001, p. 333). There can be conflict between what citizens view as a desirable environment for them to live and work, and the objectives of equity and efficiency for society on the whole. In particular, the role that property plays in economic advancement behooves rights holders to act in a self-interested manner potentially at the expense of the larger community, predominantly against those who would not have the same economic power (Furubotn and Pejovich, 1972).

Jacobs and Paulsen (2009) expand on this thought: “planning has been used to secure and protect the property right interests of the affluent and influential classes and races” (p. 134). They go further and say, “planning is fundamentally about the allocation, distribution, and alteration of property rights” (p. 135). Planning as a technical skill has attempted to work towards the public good, it is often appropriated for private interests, particularly those with wealth and power. Individual rights holders act in their self-interest, and act to exclude the poor, minorities, and/or immigrants from certain locations using the tools of planning to effect this exclusion (Scally & Tighe, 2015).

The poor and working classes are often left to provide for themselves, resulting in informal housing settlements. In Mexico, and indeed around the world, informal housing has been used by people in an attempt to secure shelter for themselves. These settlements have been called “self-help housing”, “slums”, or “vulgo squatting” in various contexts (Berner, 2001, p. 293). Alsayyad (1993) defines these informal communities as “high-density, widespread, residential communities which have been established… outside of the formal legal and economic structures” (p. 34). In the Mexican context, one pictures sprawling settlements within or on the outskirts of urban centers with limited or no services offering substandard or even squalid conditions (Berner, 2001, p. 293).


This brings the discussion back to the relationship of wealth and power as it relates to access to land and development rights. Housing is a human need, and when neither the public nor the private sectors are providing it, people will provide it for themselves in the form of self-help housing. Depending on the context, this housing looks like slums up the hillsides surrounding cities, or tents along street medians and rusty vans in parking lots as seen in Canadian cities (Mauboules, 2020).

Where citizens within a society are excluded from the mechanisms of property rights, they will then turn to their economic rights to satisfy their economic needs that support their life and liberty. This is particularly salient for life-sustaining needs such as shelter. The manifestation of this theory into practice is individuals becoming squatters. Mainstream definitions of squatting and squatters offer a rather narrow definition lacking nuance and humanity. A squatter is defined in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary as “one that settles on property without right or title or payment of rent” or “one that settles on public land under government regulation with the purpose of acquiring title”. This study will use more humanistic terms to categorize the individuals who occupy informal settlements.

There is a multitude of practical reasons why people turn to the informal housing market. Brueckner and Selod (2009) outline a series of potential circumstances which may apply: insufficient housing supply, housing supply not targeted to low-income families, underinvestment in infrastructure, monopoly land ownership, regulation, and discrimination. All of these circumstances limit an individual’s ability to gain property rights and exercise their economic rights. Through their occupation, settlers enforce their economic rights and take their position as participants in the local economy.

This intersection of economics, land use, and housing is the subject of inquiry for this study in Mexico. Where do property rights align to land use when it relates to housing within an economy. Property rights and land access in this context can be mutually exclusive, as seen in the prevalence of informal housing. Land-use decisions are supposed to balance economic, social, and environmental needs within a community, but this is a delicate balance. Wealth and power influence the direction that the scales tip, and rarely do they tip in the direction of the poor. These influences are all constructs of the social systems within which they operate, and the results play out in the real world, allowing purposeful examination and adjustment.

Methodology and Approach

This interdisciplinary work looks at the intersection of economics, land use, and property rights to examine its impacts on housing. The epistemological foundation is that of pragmatism: seeking the most appropriate avenues to find real-world solutions. This engages both interpretivism and positivism in the study’s framework, looking not just at what the data says, but also at what the data means (Patel, 2015). This foundation broadens the suite of methodologies available to the researcher. The study is based on an inductive case study approach, looking in detail at specific examples from the field research. Ethnography was used extensively to contextualize and interpret the findings in the field.

The research process in the field was iterative and opportunistic. The research questions were left quite broad, leaving space for exploration and creation. One of the principles of the research was the co-creation of research with the participants. San Pedro and Kinlock (2017) describe this process of research decolonization referencing the relationship built between the researcher and participants. They encourage researchers to “center the realities, desires, and stories” of the participants so as to not “other” them in an extractive research process (p. 374). This respected the positionality of the researcher as an outsider and allowed Mazatlecos to define what was important to them and what they wanted to have studied. This was a very fruitful approach that expanded the research findings significantly. It was also an inductive process allowing the research to reveal within its findings answers to unasked questions rather than seeking a singular answer.

A foundational method of research is the examination of existing literature, or archival review, to ascertain the current practices within the land development industry. As the researcher is not native to Mexico, it was important that she be informed regarding the practices around the development process, creation of informal settlements, and land-use decisions. This research was from the point of view of the community as well as from the regulatory bodies.

Semi-structured interviews (SSIs) were used as a tool for this project, targeting individuals familiar with the communities, developments, and industries. This method provides a deeper understanding of issues as compared to a closed question survey, and allows for follow up questions, additional areas of inquiry, and a freer conversation. Luo and Wildemuth (2009) indicate that SSIs are more “organized and well planned” as opposed to casual conversations (p. 248). As Newcomer et al. (2015) indicate, SSIs are “superbly suited” to research where “probing open-ended questions” are necessary to gather the required information (p. 494). The flexibility and adaptability of SSIs were well suited to the research question and the nature of the informants.

The researcher used the ‘snowball’ method to identify potential informants. The snowball sampling method is described by Cohen and Areili (2011) as one interviewee referring the interviewer to a new interviewee, who then refers on to the next interviewee, and so on so that the “sample group grows like a rolling snowball” (p. 424). This approach to interviewee selection is helpful in conflict situations, although Cohen and Areili do not limit the use of the snowball approach to dangerous circumstances.

A series of public sector agencies, civil society organizations, and business advocates were initially selected as a preliminary canvas of potential informants. The municipal government was contacted for information on economic development, urban planning, and local housing policies. Connections with the Universidad Autonoma de Occidente and UNAM – Universidad Nationale Autonoma de Mexico were established with fellow researchers in this field, which were fruitful relationships in terms of information, history, and context. Lastly, connections within civil society organizations (CSOs) helped to link policies with the experiences of people in the community. While this research is approached from a policy lens to limit interaction with vulnerable citizens, it was important to have an understanding of how those policies impact their daily lives.

Case studies were presented in the larger research study, featuring invasions at Genero Estrada, Alvorada, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), General Phillipe Angeles, and El Castillo (Hansen, 2021). Each neighbourhood presents a different form of invasion, with differing ages, tenures, and potential for regularization (being serviced with infrastructure and granted formal deed and title). The research findings are based on the information gathered during the course of the tours of these locations, and of the GIS analysis that was undertaken to assess the hypothesis that parcel sizes have remained modest over time and geography.

GIS Methodology

Licker Geospatial Consulting Co was commissioned to undertake the GIS modelling for analysis by the researcher. They used the ESRI 2011. ArcGIS Desktop: Release 10. Redlands, CA: Environmental Systems Research Institute software suite for this analysis. First, seven sites were identified based on the images and descriptions provided by the researcher. Sites consist of census block boundaries, which were used as a proxy to property boundaries. Census block data is also used for later analysis. Next, all non-building areas in the census block are identified with ESRI World Imaging service (multiple satellite platforms, roughly one meter ground resolution).

Then the area of the non-building delineation is joined to census block data, and the building area is calculated as the non-building area subtracted by the census block area. Lastly, variables such as the number of dwellings, census block area, non-building (greenspace) area, and building (foundation) area are summed for each site. The average parcel size is calculated as the total block area divided by the total number of dwellings. The average foundation area is calculated as the total foundation area divided by the total number of dwellings.

They report that the methodology has a +/- 10% uncertainty. The census contained the number of dwellings, which is used to calculate the average parcel area based on the known size of the census area. This area excludes roadways, parks, and public facilities. The census used was from 2016, and the specific tiles of ESRI’s world image service used are from the GeoEye-1 satellite, captured 1/18/2020. This information provided the typical parcel size, site coverage, and housing density, which is used in the research findings of this paper.

Research Findings

Housing is necessary for any economy to function. Employees and their families require shelter in order to be able to participate in their economic sector. Housing options for the poor and working-class in Mazatlán include self-help housing and public housing programs. Pricing for each product type is dictated by the market, although the mechanics of the market are not readily studied.

In Mazatlán, like most other Mexican cities, informal housing made up a significant portion of the housing stock. Much of the older housing stock originated as invasions, with a particular influx in the 1950s (Beraud, 2001). Over time most of them have been regularized with services and titles (Interviewee 2, personal communication, January 27, 2020). Informal housing in Mexico, or at least the subset reviewed for this research, includes housing installed without an official title, usually of limited initial construction and servicing. This segment of the marketplace is still growing, and several examples of invasions were reviewed as part of the larger research project.

Housing in Mazatlán is predominantly designed as single-family homes of relatively small size. Purpose-built apartments are much rarer; however, many homes are divided for full or partial suites for extended family or renters (M. I. Grano-Maldonado, personal communication). Condominium buildings are targeted to the tourist market, either foreigner tourists or Mexican nationals from inland cities (A. Santamaría Gómez, personal communication, January 31, 2020; S. Gamble, personal communication, January 24, 2020).

There are several broad types of housing targeted to Mazatlán citizens: public housing such as those under programs like INFONAVIT, subdivisions (fraccionamientos), private subdivisions or gated communities (privados), and informal developments areas (invasions). Of interest here, homes in each of these areas tend to be of similar size and densities. Homes are placed together with no side yards on lots approximately 7 meters by 20 meters, or approximately 140 square meters (Interviewee 3, personal communication, January 27, 2020). This is a very standard size across the city regardless of the target market aside from tourist product. As a result, densities are very high, with high land utilization rates being standard.

The urban planning documents for the City of Mazatlán do specify zoning requirements for various densities and types of housing, ranging from low density to very high density. Figure 1 – City of Mazatlán Permitted Zoning Densities, Author’s Translation is the zoning permissions table from the Plan Director de Desarrollo Urbano de la Cuidad de Mazatlán, Sinaloa (IMPLAN, 2015). The highest density is reserved for housing. The informal lots developed at AMLO, for example, at 140 meters squared fall into the single- family H4 zoning requirements. This designation allows for a total of two-story homes with a maximum building intensity (floor space ratio is more commonly used in Canada) of 1.5. This metric means that the home builder can build a house 1.5 times the size of the land. On a 1,500 square foot lot, they could build a 2,250 square foot house. The multi-family designation under the H4 zone allows for a five-story building and a 3.8 floor space ratio.


Figure 1 City of Mazatlán Permitted Zoning Densities, Author’s Translation

Source: IMPLAN, 2015a, p. 329

Results from the Field

To explore the issue of parcel size standardization further, seven locations were identified for review using several land-use metrics:

  • Average lot size
  • Building footprints/average site coverage
  • Number of dwellings per hectare

These metrics will identify whether the residential parcel planning is consistent across time and geography. Seven neighbourhoods were identified for GIS analysis. Each of these has particular salience for the researcher as communities that she reviewed as part of the case study research in Mazatlán.

  1. The Los Portales fraccionamiento where interviewee Hernandez Valle lives.
  2. The Real Del Valle privados where an informant of the researcher lives.
  3. The El Cid residential tourist golf course community where Interviewee 1 lives.
  4. The Benito Juarez neighbourhood, one of the oldest invasions in Mazatlán.
  5. The Genaro Estrada invasion case study example.
  6. The Pradera Dorada 7 neighbourhood, a recently built specimen of the INFONAVIT housing program.
  7. The General Phillipe Angeles invasion case study example.

This analysis demonstrated that single-family housing for Mazatlecos is generally built on very small parcels with very little space between them. Even lots for wealthier citizens are relatively small, and those for residential tourists are also modest compared to allocations in North American residential tourist destinations. Table 1 – Specimen Location Density shows the results of this analysis, as compared to the allowances under the zoning bylaws.


Table 1 Specimen Location Density

Site Number Site Name Zoning Average Lot Size (m2) Minimum Lot Size
Dwellings Per
Maximum Dwellings
Per Hectare
1 Los Portales H4 129 99 77.82 101
2 Real Del Valle H3 225 160 44.47 63
3 El Cid H1 626 500 15.97 20
4 Benito Juarez H3 152 160 65.81 63
5 Genaro Estrada H3 178 160 56.27 63
6 Pradera Dorada 7 H3 126 160 79.06 63
7 General Phillipe


H3* 170 160** 58.79 63

Source: Licker Geospatial Consulting, 2021

* This site is in a hazard zone, so technically is unable to be developed

** There is a discrepancy between the GIS results and a provided survey plan. This discrepancy is based on the date of invasion and the fact that as of the 2016 census not many homes had been developed as yet.


Land allocation for single-family homes in Mazatlán varies by wealth and target market, as found by the GIS analysis. Parcels intended for the poor and working class are modest, averaging under 200 meters squared. Developments for wealthier Mazatlecos are slightly larger, averaging 225 meters squared in the example location, and areas for residential tourists are much larger, averaging over 600 meters squared. Wealth affects land allocation, with residential tourists being able to secure the most land for themselves, followed by wealthy Mazatlecos, and then the smallest lots are allocated to the poor and working class.

As was reported by Interviewee 3 (personal communication) in the AMLO case study site, homes are placed together with no side yards on parcels approximately 7 meters by 20 meters, or 140 meters squared (Interviewee 3, personal communication, January 27, 2020). The survey plan provided for the unapproved parcels at the General Phillipe Angeles case study site indicated an average lot size of 7 meters by 15 meters, or 105 meters squared. This size range appeared to be a standard across the city, regardless of the age of the subdivision or the nature of its origins as shown in Figure 2 – Average Parcel Size (M2).


Figure 2 Average Parcel Size (M2)

Source: Licker Geospatial Consulting, 2021

The dwellings per hectare for Location 2 – Real Del Valle is slightly lower than 50 units per hectare, with the remainder of citizen housing having higher densities as shown in Figure 3 – Dwellings per Hectare. Location 3 – El Cid is quite low in comparison, at almost 16 units per hectare. The densities found in Mazatlán are very high, using all available lands for housing.


Figure 3 Dwellings per Hectare


Source: Licker Geospatial Consulting, 2021

Housing markets in all segments have an economic component. The buying power of the market segment dictates the housing type and location available to purchasers in that economic class. Mazatlán has seen success in enabling their market serve all of the segments. Housing typology for the local population generally consists of single-family dwellings consisting of one-to-two-bedroom homes on less than 200 square meter lots and located away from the beachfront. (DataMexico, n.d.; Licker Geospatial Consulting, 2021).

The majority of homes in Mazatlán began as informal housing, moving through the process of regularization over the past decades. There are also areas of public housing provided through programs such as INFONAVIT, and new invasions continue to occur throughout the city. Housing across the spectrum, from informal shelter to luxury residential condominiums continue to be developed in all areas.

Discussion and Analysis

The issue of housing allocation is market based. There is no mandated requirement for developers to provide affordable housing, nor is the land use scheme sufficiently detailed so as to allocate lands for particular populations. Housing inequity is not an issue that informants were familiar with or were concerned about. One made one’s home where one could according to one’s means. Informants indicate that there is sufficient housing across the income spectrum, such as it may be, for any who wish it. This does not mean that the housing would meet North American standards of housing appropriateness or suitability, but it is a roof over one’s head, even if it is but a tarp. As a result, street homelessness is not common.

The examination of informal housing and its role in the market within Mazatlán was iterative, using a case study methodology. Five invasion locations were toured accompanied by informants that could offer insights into its creation and development, and its inhabitants. The five present a range of informal community types, ranging in age, tenure, and level of development. Each presented a unique community building experience, and have arrived at different stages in their development journey.

The site tours provided a deeply contextualized understanding of the role of informal housing as a component of the housing market in Mazatlán. It was this researcher’s impression based on media portrayals and even some literature that occupants of squatter settlements are victims of circumstance (Dürr, 2012; Cenecorta & Smolka, 2000). This is visible in the word choices such as slums or squatters, each of which paint negative personal characteristics onto the families that live there. They are often attributed little agency, and are instead positioned as helpless prey of the powerful in order to justify interventions from the developed world (Easterly, 2006).

The findings here show a different side of the situation. Informal housing is a viable source of housing for the poor and working class, and is an integrated component of the housing market. The individuals spoken to were proud of their homes, and had strong hopes for their futures. This is not to say that there are not abuses within the systems, or that this type of housing meets a high standard. Rather the occupants deserve a more prominent role in the narrative about their circumstances than is generally given to them.

It also revealed the integral role that informal communities play in the housing continuum – they exist and are vital to meeting the housing needs and are recognized as such by the authorities. A significant proportion of the housing stock in Mazatlán originated as informal settlements, and the Mexican government have accepted the role this important component of the market plays. They become integrated into the fabric of the communities, and in a few short years after development they are indistinguishable from other types of development. As their major urbanization push has largely been completed, authorities are now looking at regularization, infrastructure, and integration of these neighbourhoods into the larger city.

The field excursions also revealed that land allocation in the form of parcel sizes appeared quite uniform over time and geography. Older invasions appeared to offer similarly sized lots to new invasions, and invasions appeared to offer similarly sized lots to formal developments. This field finding was tested using GIS technology over seven distinct neighbourhoods, which again presented a sampling of ages, locations, tenure types, and market segments. It was found that parcels for poor and working-class housing are modest, under 200 meters squared, regardless of age and origins. Land parcels of the wealthier Mazatlecos contained within gated communities, privados, were slightly larger at 225 meters squared. Lots for residential tourists were much larger, which was not a surprise; however, they remain relatively small compared to similar developments in other locations in North America.

These findings are important, firstly to Mazatlán and its citizens as they continue to develop their urban planning frameworks. Their commitment to density and infill will continue to increase affordable supply close to employment centers, and maximize existing infrastructure. Their continued support for the informal sector is also encouraged given that this segment serves the poor and working class, markets that are generally underserved by the formal housing developers.

The western world continues to grapple with its own informal housing challenges, and there are lessons to be taken from the experience in Mazatlán. The density of development, the minimalistic urban sphere requirements, and allowing the market to supply the demand have all contributed to housing being available for citizens. There are some learnings to take from this, most importantly the realization that housing is a human right and essential to human life. If the public sector doesn’t provide it to citizens, and the private sector isn’t able to serve the market, then the citizens will provide housing for themselves in the form of self-help housing.

Research Application

By taking a wider frame, the findings here can be broadened to have applicability in other jurisdictions, particularly in developed nations where the specter of informal housing is becoming unignorable. This researcher’s practice area is in affordable housing in Canada, and the lack of supply is a notable hindrance to providing housing to citizens (Perrault, 2021). It is already happening that individuals are turning to self-help housing to meet their shelter needs (Mauboulis, 2020). Without a concerted effort to provide through the public sector or allow the private sector to serve, the current examples of informal housing will be the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps the solution, like in many parts of the developing world, and indeed like most of North America prior to World War II, is to allow individuals to provide for themselves through self-help housing.

The first learning from the field is how dense housing in Mazatlán is. Single-family lots are very small, and they do not require excessive yard spaces. This allows developers to create many more homes on a parcel of land, thus increasing supply. Related to this is the minimalistic urban sphere requirements. Roads are narrow, sidewalks are minimal, and provision for community space is limited. While the Mazatlán standard may not be universally applicable, there are likely opportunities for efficiencies in the design process, both from a space-saving and a cost-saving perspective.

As a comparison, the standard residential RS1 zoning in the City of Coquitlam allows 18 units per hectare, which is exceeded by multiples in Mazatlán. The City of Coquitlam RS1 zoning allows for a minimum lot size of 650 meters squared, which exceeds the size of golf course homes targeted to residential tourists (City of Coquitlam, 1996). The City of Vancouver RS1 zoning allows for a minimum lot size of 334 meters squared, which is double the lot sizes for the majority of housing types in Mazatlán (City of Vancouver, 1997). The trade-off between the aesthetic and the functional needs to be considered in light of the fact that the aesthetic ideal is hindering the supply of housing, which will eventually lead to the creation of informal housing unless supply is created through other avenues.

Mazatlán, and Mexico more generally, allow this segment of the market to proceed based on the principles of supply and demand. If there are customers, there are suppliers. It was also reported that the regulatory and approvals process for more traditional developments were efficient in terms of time and cost. Again, the functional aspects of their processes are not likely transferable, but the principles of being efficient and bringing product to market quickly to meet demand are something that can be replicated in other locations.

In Canada and other locations, there is a mounting housing supply deficit where citizens, especially the poor, are unable to secure housing in the open market (Perrault, 2021). There will be a time, not likely very far in the future, when informal housing becomes their only option to secure shelter. At that point, the aesthetics of urban design and the sanctity of the public process will fail in the face of human need.


This paper, an adaptation of a larger research project, has explored the role of informal housing in Mazatlán, Mexico. It sought to examine land use and the economy as it relates to housing access for local citizens. It is interdisciplinary in nature, meaning that it has examined the issue from a number of angles. It was also inductive and co-creative, meaning that the research participants had a hand in the advancement of the research questions in the field, and in the execution of the research.

The research is based on case studies of five invasions, each with a different history and trajectory. The information gained from the case studies indicated a further area of inquiry regarding the parcel size allocation of informal lots as compared to formal lots. It appeared from a visual inspection that land parcels had been and remained modest for the poor and working-class populations over time. This assumption was tested using GIS technology, and it was indeed found that parcel sizes had been relatively standardized, and perhaps more importantly, that parcel sizes for informal housing was not markedly smaller than for traditional development for this segment of the population. Parcel sizes in privados and for residential tourists were larger, not unexpectedly, however they remain small by North American standards.

The findings here indicate the important role that informal settlement plays in the housing markets of Mazatlán, Mexico. It is the source of housing for many or most of its citizens over time. Housing is a significant contributor to economic activity, even considering the basic requirement of employees needing a place to live. Without this source of housing for its citizens, it is doubtful that Mazatlán would have been able to develop its economy as it has.

Western economies can consider the role of informal housing as part of the housing continuum, especially as they face rising instances of informal housing in their cities. Where the private sector is hindered in serving the market, and the public sector is unable to provide housing, individual households will turn to self-help housing. Reexamining development densities and the requirements under the banner of urban planning may be required to either accommodate informal housing, or to facilitate private and public provision so that informal housing is unnecessary.


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The Role of Informal Housing in Mexico: Applications in Canada [full paper] Copyright © 2022 by Mandy Hansen. All Rights Reserved.

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