The current marketisation of the housing sector in China cannot solve every housing issue. Government still needs to intervene in order to reduce poverty and provide low-cost housing for the most vulnerable inhabitants. This is the point of view of Ying Chang and Graham Tipple (Newcastle University) in their article entitled Realities of life and housing in a poor neighbourhood in urban China1. The authors focus on the housing conditions in poor neighbourhoods and the way they can be improved. Wang and Tipple argued that relocating poor people to suburban areas and providing larger housing units – the usual policy in China – may not be the best solution from the poor resident’s point of view.
During the 90’s, local governments sold off a large part of their municipal-owned housing units. In most cases, poor residents were not able to buy them. Moreover, programmes for building affordable housing, because of their top-down approach, did not meet their objectives. Although the housing was designed for the poorest, only the middle-class could afford it. Since 2007, the authorities have changed their approach to housing provision. Although marketisation has not been excluded, new measures have been implemented to increase local government investment in rental housing. However, little investment has been made in improving housing conditions in poor areas. Most of the programmes have failed to take into account the considerations of the poorer residents.
The authors chose to conduct their research in a poor neighbourhood in Wuhan, in central China. This neighbourhood, “Shanghai Lane”, is located in the city centre and is home to many poor households. Chang and Tipple used the “sustainable livelihood framework” (SLF) as their main investigating method for understanding residents’ assets and issues and for analyzing recent improvements in the inhabitants’ quality of life.
- Their results showed that, in this poor area, sanitation was inadequate, and many households used the most polluting source of energy available (coal briquettes) to heat water or to cook, increasing pollution and health hazards for local inhabitants.
- Their research also pointed out that inhabitants had to deal with employment issues, and many had to rely on casual, unskilled work. Overtime work was a common way to earn extra money for Shanghai Lane residents.
- Intergenerational financial support was also widespread. Grandparents’ pensions were an important source of income for many households.
- The authors noticed that there was a high level of social capital in the street they studied, as inhabitants had lived together for a long time. The area provided adequate space for meeting, chatting or playing mah-jong. However, feelings of trust and safety had decreased over the last few years, as more and more migrants moved into the lane. The authors remarked a loss of trust even among long-term residents. One illustration of this was the addition of removal heads on water taps in the shared toilets.
- Residents had extended most of the housing units. Two thirds of households had extended their dwellings to install a private bathroom, a kitchen or toilets. The authors noticed that people with stronger political connections (former cadres) had been able to create new rooms to sublet to migrants, thus creating an overcrowding situation.
- The authors noted that residents’ interests were poorly represented by residents’ committees. They underlined the lack of associations in Shanghai Lane.
Although the municipal government of Wuhan has launched a plan to upgrade several poor communities (improving roads, adding street lights, hiring security guards or opening mah-jong recreation centres), the authors argue that more efforts should be made to improve local residents’ quality of life. They feel that rental charges should be reduced and pensioners’ incomes should increase so that residents can afford to better maintain their housing units. However, according to the authors, the most important point concerns collaborative upgrading. Residents should be empowered, so that they feel more concerned about matters relating to their residence, thus increasing their desire to improve it. The authors argue that stronger collaboration between municipalities, resident committees and local organisations would greatly affect the overall housing conditions in these neighbourhoods.
One might object, however, that empowering poor inhabitants, so that they change their habits and feel more concerned about their neighbourhood, requires time and large investments. Although municipal governments should pay more attention to this issue, as advocated by the authors of this article, in most cases they are more interested in relocating poor inhabitants to suburban areas and transforming poor, but central, neighbourhoods into CBD or middle-class residential areas. Local residents’ interests do not necessarily fit in with the municipalities’ short term interests. Promoting greater social diversity is a difficult objective to attain. Grassroots organisations will need to convince the authorities that improving poor central areas will benefit the whole city.
- Chang, Y. & Tipple, G. (2009) Realities of life and housing in a poor neighbourhood in urban China: livelihoods and vulnerabilities in Shanghai lane, Wuhan. International Development Planning Review, 31-2 http://forum.eastwestcenter.org/urbanasiaseminar/files/2010/03/IDPR-2009.pdf, accessed 20 January 2013