Slums of cardboard boxes and metal sheeting are synonymous with many Latin American cities. In Mexico, such crude housing, often unstable and overcrowded, begins at the U.S. border and stretches across the country, sprawling along highways and around the edge of cities. Nine million more homes are needed in Mexico over the next 20 years, and the severe housing shortage is particularly felt by the country’s poor.

Mexico’s economy, like others in the region, has recovered strongly from the 2008 global economic collapse, and the commercial real estate market is booming. But as is often the case, the trickle-down effect to the poor is slow. Francesco Piazzesi, a university professor and entrepreneur, has developed one solution: he works with Mexican communities to help low-income families build their own homes using cheaply manufactured building blocks that are mostly made of local soil. So far, his company, ¡Échale! A Tu Casa (, has built or improved nearly 11,000 homes. Piazzesi has also created a social fund to lend money at affordable interest rates so that more of Mexico’s deprived can afford Échale’s homes.

Piazzesi isn’t the only academic to consider how to address poverty in the region through sustainable housing. In Cuba, José Fernando Martirena Hernández, another professor turned entrepreneur, has developed a range of sustainable building materials that can be manufactured in small workshops. Houses built from bamboo, lime-pozzolana cement, and low-energy-fired clay bricks using biowastes as fuel have resulted in over 5,000 homes nationwide. In Brazil, Sergio Prado has developed a formula that combines organic resin with urban waste to create renewable and reusable materials for use in building sustainable houses. Prado hopes to test-run his technology this year in 14 cities in the Brazilian state of Sergipe.

As Hernández in Cuba says, “The next generation of housing in Latin American can be cheap, sustainable and adaptable to climate change.”

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