As developers erected enormous housing projects across Mexico, the homes they built were getting smaller and smaller.
Today, there are about 1 million houses so tiny that they have come to be known by their reviled nickname: mini-casas.
A mini-casa squeezes a bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen into about 325 square feet, a space smaller than a typical American two-car garage.
Bunched side-by-side 50 units at a stretch, they look like dilapidated dollhouses.
Inside they are pictures of extremes in confined living.
Living rooms double as bedrooms. Dining tables are shoved against walls to make way for bunk beds. Couples sleep in nooks meant for washing machines. At mealtime, children stand or take turns at tiny dining tables. Dogs and chickens scamper across rooftops cluttered with the toys, tools and cleaning products that don’t fit indoors.
Smashing into things is a constant concern: People sidestep furniture, bump shoulders and twist awkwardly to get from room to room.
An obstacle course of arms and legs blocks Enrique Cruz, 45, from getting to the front door in the morning on his way to work. Strewn in the living room are his two children and two nephews, who sleep on a sofa bed and a roll-out SpongeBob SquarePants mattress.
“I always have to be careful, or I’ll step all over them,” said Cruz, who lives at the Villa del Alamo development in the eastern hills of Tijuana.
Life in a mini-casa is like a pigeon-coop existence, said Cruz’s cousin, Edgar Cruz, 25, who lives across the street. “We live like birds in a cage, flying around crashing into each other,” Cruz said.
Built fast and cheap, mini-casas were intended to help address the country’s affordable housing shortage and deliver on the Mexican Constitution’s promise of “dignified and decent” housing for its citizens.
Most mini-casas went up during the peak of the housing boom in the late 2000s. Urban planners and architects warned against the small designs from the beginning, saying it was a profits-over-people approach that would lead to severe overcrowding and social strife.
But developers, with the blessing of the government, built more every year. The mini-casas were justified at the time as a way to provide housing to Mexico’s population of working poor people, who could only afford homes priced from $15,000 to $25,000.
It didn’t take long for mini-casas to become social policy punchlines — decrepit and often abandoned symbols of a failed housing program. In 2013, the government stopped subsidizing mini-casas and required developers to build houses with at least two bedrooms.
But for those who bought the homes — typically first-time homebuyers with little or no savings — there are no quick fixes, or escape from mortgages that lock them in the homes for up to 30 years.
A mini-casa is little more than a rectangular concrete shell, with five electrical outlets, a toilet and a shower. Many homes are just nine feet wide, with a thin wall separating one from the next. Neighbors’ bathroom sounds, raised voices and blaring alarm clocks are the ambient noise of everyday life.
Space-saving tricks are a must. Stoves become storage places for dishes and bowls. Refrigerators double as television stands. Mothers stand on chairs to reach clothing stacked to the ceiling. Coats hang from nails in the wall.
Cars parked on the dirt driveways out front often serve as second bedrooms or recreation rooms for teenagers seeking privacy. They take naps, play cellphone videos and hang out with friends.
The Gabino family — Jose, Julia and their three children — adapts by reimagining spaces.
The hallway is a storage area, jammed with boxes of clothing. The living room, dominated by a queen-size bed, serves as Jose and Julia’s bedroom. Jose’s ironworker tools are stored on the roof. The front yard doubles as the laundry room; that’s where they’ve put the washing machine.
Across town at the El Laurel tract, Saira Reyes, her husband and two daughters sleep on side-by-side mattresses in the bedroom of their mini-casa. So little space is left over that Reyes has to shove one of the mattresses aside so she can pull open the dresser drawer. (Two of the biggest builders of mini-casas in Tijuana, Homex and Urbi, declined to comment.)
The absurdity of it all angers many families, but most react with resignation — and a bit of weary humor.
Enrique Cruz’s family, which dines in shifts because they can’t fit around the table, eases the stress by cracking jokes.
Their favorite is the one about a family who wanted to decorate their mini-casa with a statue of Jesus with outstretched arms.
Cruz provides the punchline: “They had to fold his arms just to fit him in the house.”