Based on the case study of Nanjing, this article, written by Guo Chen (Michigan State University)1, looks at the households and housing conditions of China’s urban poor. China’s housing system has greatly evolved since the late 1970’s, with the progressive transfer of housing responsibility from state subsidies to a market-oriented system. These reforms have boosted housing development and improved housing conditions in China. But has this privatization of housing provided solutions for poverty issues in Chinese cities?
To better understand the impact of the recent evolution in housing policies on poverty, Guo Chen has chosen to study the housing conditions for different categories of poor households in Nanjing, according to background, housing tenure and location.
- Guo Chen’s research, based on surveys and interviews, firstly shows that the hukou registration system still has a strong impact on housing conditions. Rural migrants are still the least privileged group among poor urban households and so live in the worst conditions.
- Housing conditions also depend on tenure status: Guo Chen argues that owners’ homes have better living conditions than renters’. The latter are very dependent on the way they procured their housing: from work units, housing bureaus or on the private market. She notes that work units remain an influential factor in housing. Thus, resettled households enjoy better and larger housing when it is provided by work units instead of private companies.
- Another point deals with location. At the time Guo Chen was conducting her research, Nanjing was undergoing very intensive urban renewal, which led to large resettlement programmes in Nanjing’s suburbs. The author examined the condition of the housing offered to the resettled poor households. According to her surveys, resettlement housing “when made by work units and housing bureaus” offered better quality to residents than the former housing.
In spite of the ongoing privatization of housing, Guo Chen argues that there is a path dependence to the pre-reform system with the continuing influence of hukou and working units on housing conditions. She also notes that those who are the most exposed to the housing reforms suffer the most from poor housing conditions.
The author pleads for a better administered system for housing provision and support, as well as greater municipal participation in relocation programmes.
Although this article was published in 2011, the research and surveys were conducted in 2004. Since then, many reforms have been carried out in China, urban development has improved and real estate prices have increased. But we can assume that the author’s conclusions are still relevant today. Issues related to rural exodus have not disappeared and rural migrants still suffer from poor housing conditions. The hukou system has not been abolished, and migrants without local hukou face more difficulties in integrating into city life. On the other hand, Chinese municipalities seem to be paying more attention to issues concerning poor housing and are heavily investing in public housing in order to reduce social discontent. However, municipal investments in public housing are, for the most part, financed by the sale of land and by taxes from private urban development programmes. City governments need to find a balance between the private housing market and a system of public housing subsidies.
This article also reminds us that poverty is not only rural, but urban. Recent research2 conducted in Europe shows that poverty is greater in large cities than in middle-size agglomerations. The problem of housing the poor has still not been resolved in Europe. Another interesting point that is highlighted in Guo Chen’s paper is the fact that poverty is not homogenous; there are several different levels of poverty and so a wide range of measures is needed to solve these issues.
- Chen, Guo. 2011. “Housing the urban poor in post-reform China: Some empirical evidence from the city of Nanjing”, Cities [↩]
- Compas, Premières estimations du taux de pauvreté des plus grandes communes de France, étude n°2, August 2012, retrieved from http://www.compas-tis.fr/download/compas_etudes_2_aout_2012.pdf (accessed 30 November 2012) [↩]