Building Our Way to Hell?

“Excessive gentrification destroys the biodiversity and ecosystem of a community.” ― Khang Kijarro Nguyen

We are in the process of big renovations to our house: a new roof, drop ceilings, repainting, new electrical wiring…the works. It is long past due, however I wonder what our neighbors think? Are they upset or jealous or angry that we have the money for renovations to our house? Do they resent us because they live beside “rich” foreigners?  Will we be less accepted because we may be perceived as flaunting our “wealth”? Are we flaunting, taunting, or demonstrating that we are better people because we are not living in poverty? Do we want to live like Nicas?

The big bad G-word is gentrification. By definition it is the process of renovating and improving a house so that it conforms to middle-class taste, or since we live abroad…to gringo taste. Although gentrification is a term applied to urban areas, I believe extreme gentrification can be used to demonstrate “building our way to hell” all over the urban, rural, underdeveloped and developed world.

I don’t like the words extreme gentrification because it has a bad connotation. Instead, I prefer integration. The difference is that we have integrated into our all-Spanish speaking community. We have simply moved from one place to another. Extreme gentrification on the other hand, is kicking poor people out and replacing them with rich people.

Gentrification is happening, especially in the coastal towns and colonial cities in Nicaragua.   And some areas have experienced extreme gentrification. Some cities are suffering with growing tourism and no regulations for short-term rentals. Rent prices are completely unaffordable for the average Nicaraguan. Landlords are evicting people to start touristic businesses everyday, and land speculators are buying land for peanuts that has been in families for generations and then selling outrageously expensive housing compounds to foreigners forcing the local people to move to the outskirts of cities or towns.

Extreme gentrification is happening in cities all over the world. Take a look at some of the major cities throughout the world where the G-word is a bad word. “We are building our way to hell”: tales of gentrification around the world.

On the other hand, gentrification ( without the extreme) can be good, right? It brings amenities and services that not only benefit the newcomers, but local residents too. We have five banks in Moyogalpa, more restaurants, hardware stores, places that cater to the growing number of tourists with motorcycle rentals and guide services, new hotels and hostels, fiber optic internet cables, and a Pali now.

The locals who own homes are now getting paid more money than they have ever seen in their lives for their houses. Although it is difficult to find research studies on the cause and effect of gentrification of foreigners moving abroad, one study found that there was no evidence of a causal relationship between gentrification and displacement.

So, there are pros and cons of gentrification and much depends on how you define it.

Do we want to live like Nicas? Absolutely not! The photo below shows our house in 2004. We did live like Nicas then, although at that time we were the only house with a flush toilet and tile floors in our neighborhood.

It was exhausting! We washed our clothes by hand, cooked on a two burner stove, learned how to use machetes to cut the grass, and lived without satellite TV or internet.
Were we more accepted in 2004 than we are now? No!

Which leads me to believe that because we have been in this community for over a decade, they know us well and accept us.  We have integrated into this lovely neighborhood as foreigners. There is no reason to pretend we are Nicaraguans for their acceptance. Diversity is not exclusion in their eyes or our eyes either. They may not understand some of our customs and traditions, but they accept us as people, not “rich” gringos.

Our neighborhood is changing rapidly. Even the poorest families have made improvements throughout the years to their homes. The main difference is that we can make major improvements more rapidly.

My closest neighbor added a new addition to her house and a new cement block wall for her kitchen area. She had to wait several months before she could afford to buy a new door for her addition, but she made do with a curtain until she had money for a door.

Seriously, I don’t feel like we are “building our way to hell” on Ometepe Island. We are integrating, living peacefully, and are culturally immersed in a great little community. On Ometepe we are proud of diversity, not displacement.

Gentrification and integration both require a delicate balance. With the influx of foreigners moving to Nicaragua, my hope is that they understand the effects of extreme gentrification, that they are not blind to what it took to get their beautiful rentals or coastal homes, and they take a deeper look at the process of “building our way to hell”.

15 thoughts on “Building Our Way to Hell?

  1. This is a topic very worthy of thoughtful consideration by all. Many in Washington State resent the influx of people who are driving housing prices way up, so it is not a problem just in other countries. In Himachal Pradesh, a state in India, everyone from outside the state has to get a permit to buy property, which is given if the price is deemed fair, and the sale will result in good for the area. While I do not like suggesting red tape, I would hate to any of us take advantage of people.

  2. Debbie, I find this to be true no matter where in the world you go. In our backyard here in Orange County California it is very prevalent. All along the coast, well-to-do folks have driven the price of land and housing through the roof. I could not afford to live here if I did not buy close to 30 years ago. I don’t quite understand your reference to “not wanting to live like nicas”, “nicas” in Nicaragua and in Ometepe live according to their means, from very wealthy with palacial homes you and I couldn’t afford, to those who have to live in makeshift homes with dirt floors. Here too, in the heart of Orange County, one of the wealthiest counties in the US, you will find folks who live in rat infested appartments, lacking the bare minimum essentials, for whatever their circumstances are. Gentrification here has made it harder and harder for these folks of less means to survive in this area, not only because of housing prices but becase of cost of living here. This is the natural succession. I believe that as you and Ron improve your dweling, which I believe, that by general Nicaraguan standards, is not considered excessive, you two will find that there is always some one jealous of your prosperity, until they find it that the changes to your house did not change who you are.
    Your new roof looks owesome.

    • Thanks Ernesto. I probably should have been specific as to what I meant by living like Nica’s. I meant like my closest neighbors who have no running water, bathroom, and dirt floors. I know our remodeling is not excessive, we still feel like we blend in to our neighborhood. However, I wonder how we are perceived here sometimes. I was really surprised when I read The Guardian article. You are right, gentrification is everywhere in the world. I like to see the progress on our little island, but I worry that there may come a time when the progress is excessive and locals are displaced. I would hate to see that. Thanks for your thoughts, Ernesto.

    • Ernesto, me encanta leer el blog de Debbie pero tengo que decirte que siempre que haces un comentario me identifico plenamente contigo. Yo vivo en east Long Beach y en un futuro cercano planeo vender o rentar mi casa y volver a Nicaragua. Crees que sería posible que un día mi esposo y yo te pudiésemos conocer?
      Mi esposo es de acá y tenemos dos hijos uno graduado de UC Berkeley y el más chico se graduara en mayo de Columbia University.
      Y tu cuál es tu historia?

  3. We see it in Panama too where expats have congrated and some locals are priced out of their communities. But as you said tourists and expats also bring money and opportunity. I remember how well Puesta del Sol was helping your neighbors.
    You treat the local people with kindness, respect, and generosity, and are able to communicate in their language. I think that is why you are accepted, more important than what kind of house you have.

    • There are pros and cons to everything, right? We feel like our little community has become like a big extended family. I love the hard working people of Puesta del Sol! And most definitely it isn’t because of the kind of house we have. Oh, by the way, Puesta del Sol built a skyscraper water tower for their guests. It is the first skyscraper on Ometepe! Lol Actually, Eric needed a large water tower and tank for gravity flow water. While they were making the tower, he thought it would be cool to make the tower stacked with guest rooms. It is amazing, with a spiral staircase that goes up to the top deck and connects the three rooms stacked inside the metal tower.

  4. Another thought-provoking post and an important distinction. Extreme gentrification happens in some of the poor areas of cities when tax abatements and such are offered so that people will move in and build big homes. It does make the neighborhood look nicer, but where do the people go who lived there before and can’t afford anything near the new homes?


    • Exactly Janet. So much has been written about gentrification in cities throughout the U.S. but, it is hard to find studies of gentrification in Central America. That’s why I linked The Guardian to my post. It is horrifying to see the effects of gentrification . And once again, all I can do is make people aware of the impact it could have on local people.

  5. Great points Debbie. One city that comes to mind when I think of gentrification is Antigua, Guatemala, where most of the locals couldn’t afford to live in the historic neighborhoods any longer. And I recently read an article about one of my favorite cities, Barcelona, talking about capping tourists because the rents were becoming too costly for the citizens who lived there. It’s definitely something worth keeping in mind when we expats move into a foreign city and talk about how cheap it is to live there without considering what the pay (and costs) might be for hard working locals who live there too. Anita

    • Anita, one of the cities mentioned in The Guardian article was Lisbon, Portugal. I thought of you and wondered if you are noticing this happening in Portugal. And I blame International Living for much of the information spread about the low cost of living abroad. I also blame international real estate developers. Greed is what causes extreme gentrification.

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