renting, home ownership, and rights to the city

When roughly 100,000 people were evicted from Dachong, there was little if any public outrage.The migrants, recent college grads, and low-income families who lived in Dachong seemed inconvenienced by the evictions, but not outraged. My friends and colleagues also expressed dismay at the evictions, but not did not take to the streets in protest. Instead, the general response was one of resignation.

I have been pondering what to make of this lack of attachment to Dachong specifically, but the urbanized villages in general.

The SEZ prides itself on its openness to outsiders, boasting that arriving in the city makes one a Shenzhener. What then to make of the fact that the majority of migrants first live in the urbanized villages, yet don’t consider them homes worth fighting for? Is living in the village a kind of social limbo between neidi and Shenzhen? Is “arrival” contingent on property ownership rather than experience and tenure?

I finally realized that as an American, I have assumed that living — whether as a renter or a home owner — in a neighborhood is a process of inhabitation through which one accrues rights to the city. One of these rights would be compensation for eviction, presumably based on one’s length of residency. But living in a neighborhood would also grant one the right to shape the neighborhood through different associations and to promote neighborhood cultural events.

In contrast, it seems that in Shenzhen not only the majority of people living in the urbanized villages, but also intellectuals, officials, and real estate developers consider renting to be a temporary state; renters do not “naturally” or “inevitably” accrue any rights to the neighborhood and by extension to the city. Instead, only village members have rights to compensation, to organize village events, and shape neighborhood culture.

In this context, the political question becomes one of affordable housing, rather than renters’ rights. As I understand the political ethos, Shenzhen inhabitants believe that the government has the obligation to provide all Shenzhen residents the opportunity to buy a condo. For intellectuals, urban planners and even liberal real estate developers the mass evictions when an urbanized village is razed do not constitute a major scandal. Instead, they see the real source of social unrest to be the fact that even working their entire lives, most people will not be able to purchase a condo.

In short, the government has defaulted on its moral obligation to house the people. The replacement of urbanized villages with upscale housing estates just rubs salt in this very open wound.

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