Mexico City, Mexico – Sergio González, 52, born and raised in Mexico City, describes himself as “twice displaced”. In 2019, after a failed legal battle, he was forced to vacate the apartment he had lived in for 16 years. Last month, he had to move again after his landlord declined to renew tenants’ leases, choosing instead to remodel the apartments and rent them at higher rates.
González’s situation is a familiar one for many tenants in Mexico City, where skyrocketing rents and property values are aggravating longstanding conflicts over land and housing.
According to Máximo Jaramillo, a professor of economics at the University of Guadalajara, housing prices are up 42 percent in real terms since 2005, while average salaries have decreased by 21 percent. Meanwhile, developers are increasingly converting affordable housing into luxury condos or Airbnbs, or simply leaving buildings empty as they wait for high-income renters.
González’s former home, the Liverpool 9 building in the centrally located Juárez neighbourhood, followed this pattern. In 2014, the owner formed an association with housing developer Reurbano to remodel the building and sell the units. According to Reurbano, the apartments have since all been sold. From the outside, many appear empty but at least one now functions as a short-term rental. Two tourists arrived at Liverpool 9 during my interview with González and confirmed they had booked an Airbnb at the same address.
With rising tourism, many apartment buildings in central neighbourhoods like Condesa, Roma and Juárez have been converted into Airbnb units that can list for eight times the price of a long-term rental.
Airbnb rentals saw an average yearly growth of 204 percent between 2012 and 2019 in Mexico City, economist Diego Tamayo told Al Jazeera via email. At the same time, Mexico City has experienced negative population growth as some relocated to more affordable peripheries of the capital or even other cities.
González has witnessed the social effects of this exodus. Much of the local-business staff in Juárez, just west of the historic centre of Mexico City, cannot afford to live there. Instead, as two baristas told Al Jazeera, they travel up to one-and-a-half hours from the city’s peripheries to get to work. González sees this as “deeply damaging because it signifies the loss of networks of trust and the social fabric”.
In September 2014, the new management gave Liverpool 9 tenants three months, rent-free, to vacate their apartments. Residents instead hired a lawyer invoking tenants’ right of first refusal to buy their homes. A protracted legal battle followed, leading to “profound emotional, physical, mental and economic exhaustion”, according to González. Tenants were allowed to remain while the matter was in court but knew they would have only five days to vacate should they lose the case.
And they lost – although the original owner did give them indemnities and gave longtime administrator Alicia Córdoba the apartment she lived in. González moved around the corner to Turin 41.
González alleges that residents were harassed by the new management during those years in limbo. In September 2016, electricians cut the power, inciting a conflict captured on video. He also complains of intentional noise disturbances and surveillance, strategies he believes were used to pressure tenants to leave.
Andrés Sañudo, Reurbano’s director of new projects and contracts, has denied Gonzalez’s allegations and said the company undertook lengthy efforts to negotiate a fair agreement with the tenants.
Few legal protections
Mexico City tenants have few legal protections against eviction, rent increases and harassment. To complicate matters further, 58 percent of renters do not have contracts, according to Carla Escoffié, a housing rights lawyer and director of the Center for Human Rights at the Monterrey Free Law School. Displaced tenants rarely pursue legal action, she said, adding “they feel that it is something they can’t fight”.
Complete data on forced displacements, which do not require police or judicial intervention, are difficult to come by. Through a freedom of information request to the Ministry for Citizen Security, Habitat International Coalition-América Latina (HIC-AL), a non-governmental organisation focused on housing rights, found an annual average of 2,970 legal evictions between 2014 and 2020.
But “outside of these judicial evictions, there are a lot that happen through pressures, through the intervention of organised crime or through the insistence of a developer saying: ‘Get out, get out, get out,’” said Silvia Emanuelli, the director of HIC-AL in Mexico. “We don’t have numbers for such cases.”
In the Santa María la Ribera neighbourhood, some renters and owners of the historic Dr Atl 269 building are considering leaving due to one developer. According to four, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, Ángel Arredondo has installed security cameras in public areas without their permission and hassled occupants with petty complaints. He even escalated one grievance – of unsightly recycling stored in public areas – to the Mexico City Attorney General of Social Issues (documentation of which was provided to Al Jazeera).
In the midst of the neighbourhood’s rapid gentrification, the complex has remained affordable. The building is designated as social housing and most of its residents are elderly owners who have lived there for decades. Renters, meanwhile, pay as little as 4,000 Mexican pesos ($203) per month. But an Airbnb rental in the same building, which all four sources say belongs to Arredondo, lists for about 10 times that amount (not including taxes or Airbnb’s commission). Arredondo, who declined to comment for this story, has reportedly approached other owners to buy their units.
The benefits of renting on Airbnb are not just monetary for small-scale property owners, many of whom seek greater security. Prior to the pandemic, Valeria Gauna, 40, was having difficulty finding a trustworthy tenant for her Colonia Alamos apartment. She worried about a renter damaging the property or squatting, so she decided to list her apartment on Airbnb instead. Gauna feels confident the platform will intervene if issues arise.
University of Guadalajara’s Jaramillo says this decision-making is a result of the thin legal protections for landlords and tenants. In Mexico, there is only one path for resolving housing disputes: a judge’s decision. “What should be a last resort, is in fact the first and only option that exists,” he says.
While the platform benefits small-scale owners, advocacy site Inside Airbnb, which tracks the platform’s effect on residential communities, shows the majority of Mexico City hosts are not like Gauna. In fact, 63.8 percent of hosts have multiple listings and the most prolific, “Mr W”, has 207 listings in the capital only.
Despite all the controversy, Mexico City officials are seeking closer collaboration with Airbnb. On October 26, the city’s Head of Government Claudia Sheinbaum announced an agreement with Airbnb to attract more “digital nomads” to the city.
During the pandemic, Americans flocked to the capital in search of a warmer climate and cheaper housing as they worked from home, helping jumpstart the city’s economic recovery, says Diana Alarcón, a legal representative for the Mexico City government.
Housing rights lawyer Escoffié believes the city is not taking seriously the negative consequences for local renters. She points to multiple studies that show the presence of Airbnb in cities leads to increases in rents and housing prices. Many international cities, including San Francisco and Tokyo, have regulated the platform. Others like Barcelona have even banned short-term rentals.
Escoffié sees the opposite in Mexico, pointing to Sheinbaum’s statements in which she said: “We don’t wish for rents to go up.”
Escoffié commented: “To me, that seems like an admission that ‘we don’t know what effects this will have’.”
Residents of Mexico City have taken to social media to call on the government to address rising housing costs. According to HIC-AL, the lowest earners in Mexico City spend on average 50 percent of their income on rent and many residents have struggled to pay their rent without pandemic assistance.
More than 800 individuals and 50 housing rights organisations signed a manifesto demanding the city’s agreement with Airbnb to be cancelled until the government performs a study of how the platform has affected housing access. Alarcón confirmed such a study is under way. Airbnb’s public relations representative declined to comment beyond the official press release.
According to Alarcón, it is the service sector – 58.4 percent of the gross domestic product – that stands to benefit most. A 2022 Airbnb-commissioned study, carried out by UK-based consulting firm Oxford Economics, found that digital nomads stimulated job creation in Latin America and the Caribbean, providing 15 new jobs for every 1,000 Airbnb listings.
But some residents remain unconvinced that digital nomads’ spending power will benefit them. Popular frustration is evident in Juárez, where signs accuse: “Your tourism expels families” and “They say that long, long ago [before Airbnb], there was real life in this building.”
The posters also target developers like Reurbano, whose logo appears with devil’s horns. Sañudo of Reurbano marvels at the outsized attention his company of just 14 employees has attracted. Unlike most large housing trusts that operate in the shadows, he says Reurbano publicly engages in urban planning. But doing so “puts you in the eye of the hurricane”.