affordable housing, thoughts on

Affordable housing is a hot topic in Shenzhen and in fact, the topic is of current interest because one of the utopian impulses at Wutong Island is a proposal to bring back dormitories and cafeterias for single young professionals. Affordable housing also frames debates on the value that urban villages provide the city of Shenzhen. Results from a non-random survey of my friends on the state of dormitory housing in Shenzhen follow.

In the academic literature on Shenzhen, especially from research conducted in the 1990s, one can get the impression of a pervasive “dormitory regime” by which labor is controlled to be more easily exploited. Although dormitories may have functioned that way at particular companies, it seems that in Shenzhen dormitories were part of the transition from Maoist guarrantee of housing to danwei members. In fact, most people I asked agree that dormitories were a phenomenon of the last century. Morever, many date the urban village population explosion to 2000, when most public and private companies stopped building dormitories.

Whether or not workers have the option (or obligation) to live in a company dormitory depends on company policy. Many companies simply do not offer dormitories or a housing stipend; many of these workers rent rooms in urban villages or rent shared spaces with other singletons. According to one friend, in many cases dorm rent is nominal, but young people often want to live elsewhere and move out. Another mentioned that some bosses prefer to give a housing stipend, and leave the responsibility for housing to their employees.

Young white-collar workers are more likely to share housing in housing estates rather than living in an urban village, even though urban village rents are significantly lower and afford more privacy. Some companies provide housing in urban villages, but do not provide water and electricity. Thinking about dormitories in Shenzhen also implies economies of scale. For some low-end employers it’s cheaper to provide a bed onsite, while for larger companies with campuses there’s a point where it’s cheaper for a company to provide housing and a lower paycheck than it is to offer a salary with no housing supplement, which is the case in many of the service industries.

Most people I asked think that having a dorm is a good thing because it is a way of saving money and is also considered a safer alternative than living on one’s own or with strangers. Several bosses said that it is harder to keep skilled workers than it used to be. Accordingly, they are willing to provide a dormitory or housing stipend in order to foster company loyalty.

The larger background to the dormitory question is subsidized housing. In 1980 at the establishment of the SEZ, all state employees had a right to housing and dormitories were a fast way of providing it. Moreover, dormitories were often viewed as transitional to doing allocated housing.

The change to this system was called “housing reform” and entailed the transfer of property rights from the state to individuals. With the implementation of fuli (福利房)and weili (微利房) housing, housing rights became the right to a housing subsidy. Fuli housing is built by the government or individual government bureaus and sold at cost to functionaries and government employees, including hospitals and schools. In contrast, weili housing is built by developers on subsidized land and then sold at approved profit to individuals who meet criteria. There are of course inequalities within the state system; some bureaus are large enough to secure land and housing for their employees, others are not and participate in generalized housing allocation.

The point, of course, is that very few Shenzhen residents have had (or will have) the opportunity to secure subsidized housing. Dormitories and urban villages serve as viable solutions to the pervasive problem of providing young people and recent immigrants with affordable housing. They do not, however, mean that homeownership has suddenly become within easy reach. Instead, as in the United States, homeownership is often predicated on long-term mortgages that chain individuals (to often unacceptable working conditions) through debt.

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