What will happen to Roma and Condesa?

The earthquake that struck central Mexico on September 19, 2017 killed over 350 people and caused extensive damage to the capital city and surrounding areas.  Many more people were injured and even more now must face the loss of their homes or businesses.  As survivors of this event, Mexico Business Blog grieves for our friends, neighbors, colleagues and all those whose lives have been so brutally disrupted.  The details and descriptions of the earthquake itself have been reported comprehensively elsewhere, so in this post we would like to present some observations from our own experience and address the future of our community in the near to medium term.

First, we have to say we were stunned by how fast organized rescue and response operations began after the earthquake.  Once the shaking and crashing stopped and to the best we could determine we were still alive, we took off on foot from Condesa to nearby Colonia Roma to search for family members.  Within the first block, in the midst of dust and broken concrete, we came upon a collapsed apartment building spilled out into the street.  This was a few minutes after the earthquake, yet people in hard hats and reflective vests were already swarming the rubble, cordoning off the street, directing traffic and calling for supplies and equipment.  This scene was repeated everywhere as we worked our way toward Roma – streets cordoned off, rescuers in full kit frantically digging for survivors and others directing traffic and calling for supplies.  Who were these guys (and gals)? Under normal circumstances, if you report a gas leak or a dodgy electrical connection it could be months before anyone shows up to have a look.  So we’re not sure if these initial responders were from government agencies, NGOs or just good neighbors, but they sure got to work instantly in what looked like a very organized manner.

Another very impressive response was how fast city rubbish collectors leapt into action to clear excess trash from the streets.  By the day after the earthquake, volunteers were pouring into Condesa in droves bringing bottled water, food, first aid supplies and other necessities for the rescue workers and people displaced by the damage.  We were impressed by the solidarity demonstrated by the citizenry, but we also presumed that mountains of discarded plastic bottles, paper plates, sandwich wrappers and other detritus would pile up for weeks in the mud.  To our astonishment, by the next day brigades of city sanitation workers were on the streets early meticulously gathering and clearing away the accumulated trash as the rescue and recovery work proceeded.  We are certainly willing to crab about the shortcomings of our city administration, so if such rapid and effective response is the work of our dedicated city officials, then may they be recognized and lauded for it.

As chance would have it, the neighborhoods in which we live and work, Roma and Condesa, are among the zones most damaged by the earthquake.  In recent years these neighborhoods have been absolutely on fire as a magnet for the young, hip and arty from around the country and around the world, with mezcal bars and vegan sushi joints popping up on every corner.  Colonia Condesa, known for its Art Deco architecture, has been a popular eating and drinking spot for arty locals and foreigners since at least the 1990s, but adjacent Colonia Roma only really surged as a hip and trendy hot spot over the past 10 years or so.  We well remember Roma as a quiet, unassuming residential neighborhood before the 1985 earthquake, and then as a somewhat more ragtag version of same after it suffered heavy damage in ’85.  Over the past few years, however, Roma has exploded in popularity not only with trendy Mexican youth but particularly with young artists, techies and entrepreneurs from Europe, South America and elsewhere in North America.  People with money were pouring in, and rents and apartment prices were responding accordingly by going through the roof with no end in sight.

Well, the end may now be in sight.  Rubble piles and security tape line the streets in Condesa and Roma, and we’re going to go out on a limb and guess that a fair share of pending real estate purchases in the area are on hold for the moment.  We are definitely seeing a lot of “for sale” signs on buildings around here, but does this constitute a new rush to sell after the earthquake?  It’s hard to know, since we weren’t paying attention before.  But the signs abound, and it seems that from a purely economic perspective this is probably an adverse moment to sell a property here.  Then again, if one’s objective is to flee Roma-Condesa at any cost and never return as long as one lives, well then it’s a good time to sell.

One thing we will be watching closely in the coming months is what will happen to the residential and commercial buildings that have been evacuated and are evidently damaged.  Can some of these buildings be repaired and return to use, or are most rendered permanently uninhabitable?  For the owners or whoever was making money off these buildings, this represents a substantial economic loss.  We recall that after the 1985 earthquake numerous damaged buildings in Colonia Roma were either just left as is for years or cleared to use the lots as ad hoc parking lots.  After 20 years those dirt parking lots in Roma magically began turning into high-density apartment buildings and construction was underway at many such sites at the time of the September 19, 2017 earthquake.  Buyers who placed deposits on those apartments are now surely contemplating the future of the neighborhood and their commitment to being part of it.

In this context, since September 19 here in the central zone of the city we have heard many voice the opinion that this is the time to buy.  We have not, however, heard anyone say “This is the time to buy, and therefore I now will purchase this specific property tomorrow.”  The jury is still out because it’s only been two weeks since the quake and it’s a bit too early to draw conclusions.  We have not done any quantitative research on price behavior but we did take a peek at apartments for sale on the real estate web site metroscubicos.com and the prices in Condesa still look mighty spendy for your average Mexico City shlub.  Granted, these are the sellers’ prices and there is no indication people are lining up (or not) to buy the properties on offer, but we are sure to hear more about this topic in the media going forward.

If we had to give our opinion, which we don’t but we will anyway because that’s what blogs are for, our best guess is this: Some people will flee the area, some (such as your humble servants) will stay, and the real estate market will cool off for a while but ultimately recover and move on.  There are many factors in favor of recovery, but consider at least this: The fulminating emergence of Condesa as the go-to place to live, work and play play play for Mexican hipsters and young foreigners occurred after the 1985 earthquake, which was even more devastating to the city than last month’s twin nerve-rattlers.  For the denizens of the area, it is incumbent on each of us now to choose between the constant threat of instant death and having multiple bespoke cupcake ateliers within a block of our homes.  Once the current crop of freaked out foreign millennials packs up and moves back to Michigan and the next batch arrives from France, Spain and Argentina, our money’s on the cupcakes.

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