Lack of affordable housing threatens China’s urban dream

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Source: https://www.chinadialogue.net

Author: Youqin Huang

China is in the midst of an urban revolution, with millions of migrants moving into cities every year. Since 2011, for the first time in history, more than half of China’s 1.3 billion population (690 million people) are living in cities. Another 300-400 million are expected to be added to China’s cities in the next 15-20 years. New Premier Li Keqiang recently proposed accelerating urbanisation in China, and said it was the “main driver” of China’s future economic growth.

Yet, China’s urban dream may be derailed by the lack of affordable housing in cities for the existing urban poor and the massive influx of migrants.

Until the 1990s, Chinese cities were dominated by welfare-oriented public rental housing provided by either the government or public employers. Severe housing shortages, residential crowding, and poor housing conditions were common problems in cities. Over the last two decades, Chinese cities have experienced an unprecedented housing privatisation, as the Chinese government has sold public rental housing at deeply discounted prices, encouraged developers to provide new private housing, and ended public housing provisions.

With the influx of both domestic and international investment, there has been an unprecedented housing boom in Chinese cities. Between 2000 and 2010, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, China constructed roughly twice the total number of houses currently in the UK, or about the same amount of houses that are in Japan.

As a result, housing condition in Chinese cities has been improved significantly. Residential floor space per capita in cities increased from 43 in 1980 to 340 square foot in 2010, although this is still much smaller than in the US (700 square foot per person). Three-quarters of households in cities/towns (85% of all households nationwide) were homeowners in 2010, compared to about 20% in the 1980s. Even though some apartments are owned with partial property rights due to subsidies, the rate of homeownership in China is much higher than in many developed countries. For example, the comparable figure in the US is just 65%.

Unaffordable house prices

Meanwhile, housing prices have skyrocketed in cities, with the national average housing price increasing by 250% in the decade between 2000 and 2010. The housing price-income ratio classifies much of China as “severely unaffordable”. In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, a modest apartment can cost multiple millions of yuan to purchase, and thousands of yuan to rent, making housing affordability the top concern of most low- and middle- income households.

According to the latest 2010 census, there were still about 17% of urban family households living with “housing difficulty”, defined by the government as less than 13 metres square living space per person. This measure did not even include those with the worst housing condition, often people living in dorms in so-called “collective households”. With the lack of affordable housing, the urban poor has to live in unconventional, illegal housing, such as dorms in basements and bomb shelters (tenants are called “mouse tribe”, shu zhu), abandoned containers, roof top apartments, make-shift rooms, group rented apartments, and rooms in suburban villages, forming various types of slum-like communities.

In addition to the typical urban poor such as migrants and the old/sick/disabled urban residents, college graduates and young professionals cannot afford decent housing in big cities either. For example, in Beijing, tens of thousands of college graduates live in cramped, boxy rooms in Tangjialing, a dusty village outside of Beijing, and spend hours commuting to work each day (known as “ant tribe”, yi zu).

Meanwhile, there are many “ghost cities”, with a a large number of brand new apartments unoccupied. Yet these “empty” apartments are not for the urban poor. With few investment options, the lack of property tax, and ever rising housing prices, the middle- and upper- class have plunged into speculative housing purchase, while developers have focused on upscale housing for sale for high profit margin, instead of affordable housing for rent. The rate of second homeownership in China is higher than that in many developed countries.

Faced with increasing discontent and potential social instability, the central government has renewed its commitment to low-income housing in recent years, pumping billions of yuan into the low-income housing development and setting ambitious targets. The year 2010 marked a turning point, with the building of 5.9 million units of subsidised housing, of which 3.7 million units were basically completed by the end of the year. Another 36 million units of subsidised housing has been planned between 2011 and 2015. The goal is to cover 20% of urban households with subsidised housing, and low-income households should enjoy at least 13 metres square per capita floor space by 2015.

While these targets are encouraging, the implementation of these housing targets is still to be seen. There have been reports about local governmentsrelabeling existing housing as new affordable housing to meet the target, as well as affordable housing being poorly constructed, located in remote places with poor services, thus unattractive to low-income households. To make things worse, subsidised housing, especially those with good location and quality, often ends up in the hands of undeserving households such as middle class households working for large universities, ministries, and other government agencies, who often own multiple homes.

Migrants left out of the Chinese dream

What’s more, these new efforts focus mainly on the poor with urban household registration, while millions of poor migrants are still not the policy target. With the discriminatory Household Registration System, or hukou system (often called an internal passport system), migrants are not considered “legal” residents despite their long-term living and working in cities, and they are not entitled to welfare benefits such as subsidised housing.

Even in Shenzhen, a city of migrants, local hukou is required to access low-income housing. In others cities like Beijing, several years of local hukou is required before applying for low-income housing. Any low-income housing policy leaving out such a large segment of the poor as migrants defies the ultimate purpose of low-income housing policy – social justice, and thus is a failed one.

Due to this institutional exclusion, as well as their generally low socioeconomic status, millions of migrants have been completely left out of the “Chinese Dream” of a decent home for all. Without government subsidies, even just renting a decent apartment in the formal market is beyond most migrants’ means, let alone purchasing one. As a result, most migrants are forced to find temporary housing such as factory dorms, basements, and illegal housing built by suburban villagers.

In particular, suburban villages have been the largest provider of affordable housing for migrants forming so-called “migrant enclaves”. Around 50% of migrants in Pearl River Delta live in rental housing in suburban villages, and in Shenzhen, 48% of all housing in the city belongs to original village residents. Because these “migrant enclaves” are technically illegal, and therefore could be demolished by the government at any time, they are often of extremely poor quality and built with the sole aim of maximising the amount of occupants they can house. Thus, migrants are forced to live in slum-like settlements at the fringe of urban society.

With rapid urbanisation/urban renewal and the government’s pursuit of modernity, the limited affordable housing for migrants is under threat, with migrant enclaves being demolished/redeveloped, basements being evacuated, and old neighborhoods being gentrified. An unprecedented challenge facing the Chinese government is finding a way to shelter the massive numbers of migrants currently living in Chinese cities, as well as those who will arrive in the coming years.

The government response

So far the government’s efforts have been lacking. In 2010, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Rural Development (MOHURD) suggested that the latest rent-control housing – Public Rental Housing (gong zu fang) – may be accessed by qualified migrants. Yet, strict qualifications make it accessible only to a very small proportion of skilled migrants, leaving the majority of migrants in the same boat as before.

So long as one-third of urban residents are migrants without legal resident rights, urbanisation in China will remain “incomplete.” To succeed, the Chinese government must make affordable housing for migrants and the growing urban population a top priority.

The central government has to ensure local governments’ commitment in migrant housing through both profound reforms and financial incentives. For example, the public finance system should be reformed to allow local governments keep a larger share of their budgetary revenue and diversify their revenue sources with more long-term, stable tax revenues replacing the lump-sum land-based revenues.

At the same time, the central and the local government should work together to mobilise developers, employers and urban villages to provide affordable housing through incentives such as low-interest loans, cheap land and tax breaks, and reforms in the land and housing system.

In particular, the government should fully recognise suburban villagers’ land rights, and allow their collectively owned land to enter the land and housing market directly. With the existing dual land system in China, only local municipal governments can convert rural land into urban land for urban development. This monopolised rural-urban land conversion by the local government needs to be abolished, and housing provision by urban villages should be legalised/formalised, which will not only increase the stock of housing provision but also improve housing condition significantly.

In addition, as most industrial land is not used very intensively in China, employers should be encouraged to use vacant industrial land for housing development where appropriate; and developers should be required to provide affordable housing to migrants and other urban poor through inclusionary housing.

These reforms will result in a large supply of decent, affordable housing in both the public and private sector. Only then will millions of migrants achieve their housing dream in cities.

经适房短缺 中国梦难圆

若城市居民中还有三分之一是没有合法居住权的移民,中国的城市化进程则难言完满。

中国正处于城镇化革命之中,每年都有数百万人涌入城市。2011年,中国13亿人口中,城镇人口首次超过半数(6.9亿)。未来15-20年,预计城市居民还将增加3-4亿人。新任总理李克强近期提出要加快中国城镇化进程,指出城镇化是中国未来经济增长的“主要动力”

然而,城市贫困人口和即将涌入的移民能够负担的住房匮乏,这可能会阻碍中国实现城市梦。

在近50年的时间里,中国的城市住房主要是由政府和公共机构提供的福利性公租房。住房严重短缺、拥挤及居住条件恶劣是城市中普遍存在的问题。过去20年中,中国政府以极优惠的价格出售公租房、鼓励开发商新建私有住房、不再提供公有住房,中国城市部分住房首次实现了私有化。大量国内外资金随之涌入,城市住房市场空前繁荣。2000-2010年,经济学人智库的数据表明,中国新建住房几乎是英国住房总数的两倍,与日本住房数量相当。

因此,中国城市居住环境得到显著改善。2010年城市人均住房面积由1980年43平方英尺(约4平方米)增长到340平方英尺(约31.6平方米),不过依然小于美国的700平方英尺(约65平方米)/人。2010年,城镇人口中75%(全国人口中85%)拥有私人住宅,而在20世纪80年代这一比例仅为20%。由于补贴问题,一些房主仅拥有部分产权,但中国拥有住房的人口比率依然高于很多发达国家。例如,在美国这一数字仅为65%。

同时,城市房价也迅速上涨,2000-2010年全国房价平均水平增长了250%。房价收入比表明中国很多地区的房价已“极难承担”。在北京、上海等大城市,一套普通住房的价格为数百万元,租金几千元,能否买得起房已成为多数中低收入家庭关心的首要问题。

所以说,并不是所有群体都享受到了住房条件的显著改善。2010最新人口普查发现,约17%的城市家庭“住房困难”(根据政府规定,人均住房面积低于13㎡则属于“住房困难”)。但这还未包括居住条件最恶劣的群体,即那些住在宿舍里的“集体户”。由于经济适用房不足,城市中的穷人只能住在不合常规甚至非法的住房中,如位于地下室、防空洞的宿舍(这些人被称为“鼠族”),废弃的集装箱、阁楼、临时住房、群租房、城郊村,从而形成了各种贫民窟式的社区。过去城市贫困人口主要为移民和老、病、残群体,现在大学毕业生和年轻的职场人士在大城市也买不起房了。比如,在北京,几万名大学毕业生居住在唐家岭(北京城外一个尘土飞扬的村庄)狭小的房子里,每天都要花好几个小时乘车上下班(他们被称为“蚁族”)。

但最近据《60分钟》报道,有大量新建住宅空置,形成“鬼城”。然而,这些“空”房不是为穷人准备的。由于投资机会较少、没有财产税、房价又不断上涨,中高层收入群体都投身于投机性的住房投资,开发商为获取高额利润则专注于高档住宅而非适宜租赁的经济适用房。中国的二套住宅拥有率要高于很多发达国家。

显然,尽管住房市场空前繁荣,但目前中国城市并没有给穷人提供充足的体面、价格适中的住房。这是政府的失败。一方面,政府自身没能为城市中的穷人提供经济适用房;另一方面,它也未能调动市场做到这一点。政府一直专注于经济增长,至于经济适用房,中央政府没有明确的政策议程,地方政府未给予资金和政策支持。目前的土地制度也使市场不愿提供价格适中的住房。

面对日益加剧的不满情绪和潜在的社会不稳定问题,近年来中央政府承诺建设保障性住房,制定了宏大的目标,投入数十亿元开发建设。尤其是2010年,该年份是一个转折点,590万套保障性住房开工建设,其中370万套于2010年底基本完工。计划2011-2015年再建3600万套保障性住房。政府目标是2015年保障性住房可覆盖20%的城市家庭,低收入群体人均住房面积不低于13㎡。

目标鼓舞人心,但能否完成还有待检验。有报道称,一些地方政府为完成指标将现有房屋说成是新建经济适用房;有些经济适用房质量较差,位置偏僻,缺少基本服务,因此对低收入群体缺乏吸引力。更糟糕的是,一些保障性住房,尤其是地理位置优越、质量较好的住房,经常会落入不符合条件的人手中,比如在高校、政府部门及其他机构工作且拥有多套住房的中等收入家庭。

另外,这些措施主要针对拥有城镇户口的贫困人口,而数百万移民并非政策的目标群体。根据歧视性的户口体制的规定,尽管有些人长期在城市生活、工作,但依然不算“合法”居民,也不能享受保障性住房等福利。即使是在深圳这个移民城市,也要有当地户口才能购买保障性住房。而在北京等城市,则需持有当地户口几年后才能申请保障性住房。无论什么样的保障性住房政策,只要将移民这个人数众多的贫困群体排除在外,就违背了该政策的最终目的——社会公平,就是失败的政策。

由于制度因素和普遍较低的社会经济地位,数百万移民被排除在人人有房住的“中国梦”之外。没有政府补贴,即使只是在正规市场上租一套像样的公寓也超出了移民的能力范围,更不要说买房了。因此,多数移民都只能寻找临时住房,如工厂宿舍、地下室、城郊村民违规建造的住房等。

其中城郊村为移民提供的可承担住房最多,形成了所谓的“移民区”。由于土地归集体所有,城郊村民仅能建造房屋供自己居住,但他们常违规建造多余的住房出租,以获得额外收入。珠三角地区50%的移民都在城郊租房居住,而深圳则有48%的住房属于原来的村民。由于这些“移民区”严格说来是违法的,所以随时可能被政府取缔。这些住房建筑质量很差,其唯一目的是尽可能住更多的人,因此移民不得不住在城市边缘贫民窟一样的地方。

然而,由于城镇化发展迅速、城区不断改造、政府追求现代化,移民可承担的有限住房也受到了影响,移民村拆除或重建、地下室清空、老居民区改造。中国政府面临着前所未有的挑战:为目前在城市居住以及即将到来的大量移民寻找安身之所。

目前政府还未采取相关措施。2010年,住房和城乡建设部建议向符合条件的移民出售公租房。然而,由于条件限制严格,仅有一小部分技术移民可以购买,大部分移民境遇没有改观。

只要城市居民中还有三分之一是没有合法居住权的移民,中国的城镇化就是“不完整”的。要想成功推行城镇化,中国政府必须把为移民及不断增长的城镇人口提供经济适用房作为首要工作。

中央政府应承认移民在城市的居住权,此外还必须确保地方政府投入移民住房工作,进行彻底的改革,提供经济激励。例如,改革公共金融体系,允许地方政府保留更多的预算收入,使收入来源多样化,以长期、稳定的税收取代一次性的土地收入。中央政府还应为地方政府划拨专项资金以帮助其资助移民住房,同时创建机制保证地方政府负起责任。

同时,中央、地方政府还应相互合作,采取低息贷款、低价土地、减税等激励措施,改革土地和住房制度,以鼓励开发商、雇主以及城郊村提供价格适中的住房。政府应特别注意充分承认城郊村民的土地权利,允许其归集体所有的土地直接进入土地和住房市场。

由于目前中国实行二元土地制度,只有地方政府才能将农村用地转为城市用地,用于城市开发。应当废除地方政府这一垄断性的农地城市流转权利,使城郊村提供住房的行为合法化、正规化,这不仅能增加住房供应,还能极大地改善住房环境。另外,由于多数工业用地并未进行深度开发,因此可鼓励雇主在条件允许的情况下利用闲置的工业用地进行住房建设。另外还应要求开发商通过包含性分区制住房为移民等城市贫困群体提供价格适中的住房。

这些改革将带来大量体面、价格适中的公共和私有住宅。只有到那时,数百万移民才能实现在城市中的住房梦,而中国才可能实现城市梦想。过去几十年中,政府一直受益于移民的廉价劳动力,现在政府应该提高城市移民的福利、把经济适用房建设提上日程了。否则,大量无法购买经济适用房的人口将影响政府进一步推行城镇化,引起社会和政治动荡。

翻译:郭筝

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