Housing Cooperative “Palo Alto Union”: A Struggle for the Right to the City


1.- History, background and context

Social, political and institutional context of the experience:
The economic model that Mexico adopted in the 1930s and 1940s led to the impoverishment of the majority of peasants in the countryside and the concentration of industrial activity mainly in Mexico City, and in turn this led to the large-scale migration of peasant families to the cities in search of work and improved living conditions.
Between 1930 and 1960 there was a fivefold increase in the population of Mexico City and by 1970 the population had reached 7 million inhabitants.

Background to the project:
The first community that settled in Palo Alto were mainly from the state of Michoacan who worked the sand mines in the area. At that time Palo Alto was on the city periphery. Salaries were low and the workers had no alternative but to rent a plot of land on the site and build their own prevarious housing. If the workers left the mine they were obliged to hand over their home to the mine owner.

When the mines were closed in the 1970s after 35 years of operation the Palo Alto zone was surrounded by luxury residential areas. The mine-owner tried to get his old workforce off his land with a view to applying for a change in land use and to turn the magnificent location of the Palo Alto site into a profit-making venture. At this point the community of ex workers began to organize and thus began the long struggle to prevent eviction to a far less habitable site on the far periphery of the city.

Start date:
The Palo Alto Union started in 1969 when the residents were threatened by eviction by the owner of the land.

Phases in the process:
a) Land struggle. The first actions taken by the Palo Alto Union were to demand their right to remain on the site and they presented their case to the city authorities. A long legal struggle followed with the aim of gaining the right to remain on the site and to acquire part of the enormous site in order to build proper homes. In 1972 the Palo Alto Housing Cooperative was formally established and by the following year the legal process had found in their favour. Given this, and the considerable delays in their dealings with the authorities, the population decided to put up provisional constructions as fast as they could. One year later an agreement was signed between the original landowner, the settlers and the city authorities that definitively established the area of land to be handed over to the cooperative.
b) Construction of permanent housing begins: The civil association called the Housing and Settlement Operational Centre (COPEVI), elaborated the community projects in conjunction with the settlers and the first stage of construction was begun in 1976 for 80 housing units. The lots and the homes built on them were distributed by draw.
c) Consolidation of the settlement: two more stages of housing construction took place and by 1980 all the families had their own homes. Urban basic services were installed. Later, during the 1980s, another phase of the overall program was completed when higher density department block housing was constructed in an area that had been earmarked for the second generation of settlers and their families.

Present situation:
The Palo Alto cooperative is currently at the crossroads due to internal divisions. The crisis is a result of the demand of 35 cooperative members to have individual legal titles for their houses. When the other cooperative members rejected this possibility the case was taken before the legal authorities and has not yet been resolved. In 1994 an agreement was established in which cooperative members would be paid the full price of their housing if they chose to leave. The liquidation of the members that wish to leave has not been complied with due to lack of funds. During the internal conflict the organization officially lost its cooperative status and this has led to the lack of financial support (among other things), to continue of the housing program that is directed to the new generation of the community members. One of the consequences that results is the increased over-crowing in the homes of the families of the cooperative.

It should be pointed out that the Palo Alto cooperative is located in a zone of very high land values and the large real estate companies have never lost hope that they could purchase the land. It is known that the group of cooperative members that pressured for individual legal titles was supported by the real estate sector whose objective was to destroy the organization. This in turn would open the door for the sale of the land. This sector has tried to bribe the cooperative leaders and has also threatened them.
The legal process is not over and the cooperative members are still seeking a financial loan in order to pay for the houses of the families that wish to leave. When this financing is obtained the rest of the members of the cooperative wish for its official restitution, as, in reality, they have never left it.

Despite these problems the inhabitants of Palo Alto do not give up but feel that now is the time to recharge their energies and continue organizing themselves to achieve their own programs.

2.- Objectives, strategies and scope

As has already been mentioned the Palo Alto Union housing cooperative was founded on the basis of the right to land that its members had occupied for more than 30 years. That has been achieved and the right to an adequate home has become a reality and now the organization wishes to support the new generation of members by developing new programs to satisfy their housing needs.

In terms of decision-making, the cooperative works through Assemblies of all members and these have been the organizing principle that has sustained it throughout the years. In fact the General Assembly instrument is the mechanism through which the cooperative is organized in Palo Alto.

Strategic criteria:
The initial decision to occupy the land by constructing provisional houses was a strategy that responded to the slow and bureaucratic processes for obtaining the legal land title. The occupation had positive result in that it accelerated the decision-making process turned a stalemate situation into a negotiation process.

Another important strategic criteria was established when the limits of the Palo Alto Neighbourhood were being defined. Unity among the cooperative settlers was of vital importance as eviction was a constant threat.

There can be no doubt that the continuity of the Assembly mechanism has been fundamental for maintaining the organization together. It is also the institutional mechanism for dealing with security, finances, and other administrative issues. The legal status as a cooperative whereby the land and housing is owned collectively has enabled the members to confront pressures from the real estate sector to pursue land-use changes to their advantage.

As far as the self-management of the project is concerned a strategic decision was taken by the Assembly not to accept donations in cash or direct financial support as this could lead to internal divisions, but to receive construction materials instead. The cooperative members have paid collectively for technical assistance for the project.

Another major strategic decision was to give priority to house construction, even before basic urban services were installed. This gave the project a physical presence that increased confidence and security as it meant that the cooperative members were less vulnerable to any attempt to remove them from the land. If the housing remained provisional, that is made of cardboard or wooden planks it could easily have been destroyed or burnt.

Finally, the collective decision that all the houses be the same demonstrated the equality and unity among the cooperative members.

Size of the participating and benefiting population:
Originally the Palo Alto cooperative was composed of 237 families and the present population is approximately 2,500 inhabitants.

The case study covers the Palo Alto housing complex and its immediate surroundings.

Innovative aspects
Socio-organizational: Palo Alto was the first housing cooperative to be registered in the Federal District of Mexico City and the first to be based on collective ownership. It was also the first to develop an integral perspective to incorporate the diverse aspects of human settlements.
Financial: The cooperative constituted a non profit-making organization FONVICOOP, to channel resources that came from foundations and to finance its projects.

3.- Actors that have been involved in the project and their role in its development

Benefiting population: Originally the Palo Alto cooperative was composed of 237 families and the present population is approximately 2,500 inhabitants.

Civil organizations: since it was begun the Palo Alto cooperative has been supported by several external non government agents and the most important are the following: -Auxiliary Group: a group of organized Christian volunteers who were the first to establish contact with the cooperative. Their knowledge and experience has been very important to the development of the project, they were also part of a social network and had a permanent commitment to the cooperative during several of its key stages. The group was also involved in giving legal, financial and administrative guidance and supporting the negotiations with the authorities. It provided education and sanitary assistance as well as support for the development of women, among others; – the Social Popular Development Centre: is a community development organization that gave fundamental assistance in the social development of the cooperative through education, the social integration of cooperative members, skill training to encourage participation in the cooperative, and the management of the cooperative, among others.
– COPEVI: is a non government organization that supports low-income housing projects and was responsible for the technical assistance during several of the project phases including the area of the land to be negotiated, the construction of the provisional houses, clearing and preparing the land for construction, the urban and architectural plans for the project, the design of the construction elements and processes, the organization of the self-build process, the supervision of paid builders and finally, the financial mechanisms that incorporate the community payments with others.
– FONVICOOP: is the organization that was created to finance the housing construction in the Palo Alto cooperative and other cooperatives. FONVICOOP operated with resources from abroad and by the recuperation of payments by cooperative members.

Government: many levels of government have been involved in the diverse activities of the cooperative: the Mexico City Government; the Cuajimalpa local authority where Palo Alto is located; the Public Education Secretariat; the Health Secretariat; the Cooperative Promotion Agency (known popularly as the Torment Promotion Agency due to its inefficiency), among others.

Financial: INDECO (National Institute for Community Development and Popular Housing; FONVICOOP (mentioned above) and FONHAPO (National Fund for Popular Housing).

Other: on several occasions representatives of political parties have made contact with the cooperative. Their objective has been exclusively to obtain votes. One of the statutes in the cooperatives constitution establishes that its members cannot be affiliated to a political party.

4.- Program or project components (brief characterization of their interrelationship).

Elements of habitat incorporated in productive processes
The first step was the taking of the land that was already settled by the families, but the living conditions were deplorable as the land had not been prepared and some families were even living in caves.

Then the housing was constructed in line with the strategic considerations of the cooperative at the time. When the first phase of construction was completed the drainage network, piped water, paving, roads and electricity were gradually installed.
As the settlement became more consolidated a football pitch was laid out and a library and a chapel were constructed. The cooperative were active in talks with the authorities about the construction of a school nearby, a milk distribution unit, family planning services, and medical services (these have been reduced to a dispensary for lack of funds in the local authority), childrens play area and a building was set aside for a nursery.
In addition the cooperative constructed a warehouse, an assembly room, a tortilla production unit, a shop, a brick making unit and a general uses room was recently constructed with the support of the Mexico City Government.

Lastly, the reserve area for the construction of higher density housing (department blocks) for new generations of cooperative members has begun and part of it is already inhabited.

Social and cultural aspects:
The participation of the cooperative members has been crucial to the development of the Palo Alto experience, and particularly the participation of women who are the most consistent with regard to attending and contributing to the Assemblies.

As far as education is concerned, the cooperative has organized literacy campaigns among its members and makes efforts to resolve educational problems that arise with children and adolescents. There is a permanent program of cooperative education. In addition, the cooperative has organized theatre groups among community members that are based on their own history including the taking of the land that marked the beginning of the cooperative.

In the field of health the cooperative has worked directly in the prevention of illnesses through environmental, hygiene and nutritional campaigns. The Assembly decided to organize a youth commission and several hundred youth and adolescents from the community have participated in its activities.

Strengthening the economy and ecological sustainability
Several economic and income-generating activities have been established and among them are found the cooperatives shop, a tortilla making unit and a brick-making workshop for housing construction in Palo Alto (this was a cause of the division within the cooperative). As well as providing employment to some of the cooperative members, the profits of these economic activities have been applied to projects that contribute to the development of the community.
In the housing construction phase of the experience several of the cooperative members worked as waged workers as building workers, electricians, plumbers and metal workers, among other trades.

Contribution to urban development
The Palo Alto cooperative relates to several urban development and improvement projects elaborated by local authorities and by the Mexico City Government, The cooperative believes that their experience is an important example of resistance against eviction and the struggle for the Right to the City and particularly in the context of its location in a zone that represents the main enclave of neo-liberal globalization in Mexico City.

5.- Principal instruments:

The Palo Alto community are organized in a housing cooperative and this means that the land and housing is cooperatively owned whereby the members enjoy its use through a contract. These contracts can be inherited by the descendents of the members.
The cooperative has a special characteristic in that its activities are strictly controlled, as well as those of its leaders, by discussion and decisions taken at the fortnightly General Assembly of members.

The main financial instruments for the Palo Alto housing cooperative have been loans, contributions from international organizations and internal savings. Another source of financing has been through the income-generating economic activities.

The Palo Alto cooperative is organized in accordance with the Mexican legislation and has all the necessary administrative instruments for its internal management (General Assembly; administrative and security board; commissions for social development, education, cooperative development, conciliation and arbitration, etc).
Although the cooperative no longer has official registration it continues to organize as before and in the near future it plans to officially recuperate its status as a Cooperative Society.

Administrative and management:
The main instrument that has guided the cooperative has been the regular Assemblies, without this organizational mechanism the project would not have been possible.

Promotion and diffusion
Representatives of the cooperative have attended regional, national and international events in order to share their experience of struggle for the right to the city.
Many established organizations, and those in the process of formation, have come to the cooperative to learn about its aims and activities, and its structure and operation mechanisms.

6.- Achievements and main lessons:

Principal impacts:
The cooperative has proved itself to be an efficient instrument for achieving concrete results both in terms of its own members and to promote this type of housing organization nationally. Among the most significant achievements are the following:

  • Bringing down housing production costs through acquiring cheaper land, purchasing building materials in bulk, producing building components, and the self-management of aspects related to the administration, official procedures and negotiations related to the project and the building works. }
  • Strengthening the economy of the group through the generation of employment in the project.
  • Overcoming entrenched social problems such as illiteracy, unhealthy practices, alcoholism, passivity, family disintegration, etc.
  • Channelling technical assistance to the social, financial, architectural, urban, administration and accountancy activities of the cooperative, which has enabled the members to develop technical skills and knowledge.

Principal obstacles:
Without doubt the main obstacle has come from external pressures to evict the cooperative community from the land and this is the cause of the internal division.
Another obstacle is the growing lack of interest by the new generations to actively participate in the cooperative.

7.- Key words:

Palo Alto; Mexico City; cooperatives; housing; self-management.

8.- Sources:

– COPEVI, a.c., Cuadernos de Dinamica Habitacional, Palo Alto, Esfuerzo Colectivo y Organizado, Mexico 1987.

– Enrique Ortiz Flores, Sociedad Cooperativa de Vivienda Unin de Palo Alto, Unpublished essay, Mexico, September 1980.

– Interviews with cooperative members.

9.- Contacts

Luis Rodrguez
Cooperativa Palo Alto
Kilometro 14.5 Carretera Mexico Toluca

Tacuba #53, 1er piso Colonia Centro
CP 06000 Mexico, D.F.
Tel: (52-55) 5512 1586
Fax: (52-55) 5512 6726