Poor Accommodations

Poor Accommodations

The Struggle for Affordable Housing in Shanghai and Shenzhen

  • One of the last buildings standing among a pile of debris in Gangxia West Village, Shenzhen, August 2009. The building’s owner had yet to sign an agreement with the property developer and the government, preventing them from tearing down the structure and constructing something else on the land. At the time this photograph was taken, part of the building was still being rented out and lived in by migrant workers. Later a local newspaper reported that the building owners were well compensated, some receiving more than US$2 million.
  • A man stands on rubble in Putuo District, Shanghai, November 2009. This neighborhood would soon be demolished to make way for a new residential development.
  • The Chinese character <em>chai</em>, meaning “to demolish,” marks the wall at the entrance to the neighborhood of Lane 1289 West Yan’an Road, Shanghai, July 31, 2009. The government usually marks buildings and neighborhoods slated for demolition with this character; in this case, however, it was the residents who painted it, with the hope that an urban renewal project would finally reach them and they would receive money to move out. Officials from the Neighborhood Committee (<em>jiedao banshi chu</em>) routinely erased the marking, only to see it repainted by the residents soon after.
  • Ms. Ding stands in a narrow alley of Lane 1290 West Yan’an Road talking with her neighbor in the summer of 2009. Ms. Ding has lived in the same neighborhood for more than fifty years. Hidden from the outside world in a deteriorating section of the city, residents in this area consider themselves forgotten in the midst of Shanghai’s massive ongoing facelift and nonstop development.
  • In the late 1990s, Shenzhen embarked on plans for an ambitious new civic center and a central business district master plan. As the plan moved forward, Gangxia West Village was the last urban village left standing within the planning boundary of the Shenzhen Central Business District. Following demolition, workers would scour the area for recyclables and salvageable materials.
  • New housing developments rise in Shenzhen, April 2009. Over the course of that year, commodity housing prices jumped from approximately US$1,600 to almost US$2,800 per square meter.
  • Xiangxi Village is just one of more than two hundred “urban villages” in the city of Shenzhen. In a metropolis of more than ten million people, developers were attracted to it because it was surrounded by commodity housing projects in a prime location within the city center. However, its history as a rural village meant the land was collectively rather than state-owned.
  • Mr. Li and his daughter stand in front of a neighbor’s glass panel shop. They rented an apartment above the shop. Mr. Li and his wife came to Shenzhen from a rural village in Guangdong province as migrant workers twenty years ago, and their daughter was born in Shenzhen. However, without a Shenzhen <em>hukou</em> (official residence permit), the family is not eligible for government-sponsored housing, so this urban village existence has been the only source of affordable housing for them. The demolition of Gangxia West Village forced them to move to a smaller home in a new development.
  • Ms. Zhou Hui poses for a portrait in her bedroom in Xiangxi Village. She paid US$150 in rent per month, for an apartment that she shared with a roommate. Ms. Zhou, who was born in 1986, is young, single, and moved to Shenzhen from a rural village in Hunan province in 2002. She was working in a luxury spa, saving most of her income with the hope of purchasing an apartment with her sister one day. However, her savings likely will not catch up to the pace of the rising cost of housing in Shenzhen, where today prices have reached US$4,800 per square meter in Ms. Zhou’s neighborhood.
  • Ms. Qiao and Mr. Bao sit in their residence, a single room with no bathroom or kitchen, in Lane 1289 West Yan’an Road, Shanghai, June 3, 2009. They have lived in the same room for decades and cannot afford to move. The couple was hoping their home would be demolished and that they would receive compensation that would help pay for them to relocate to the suburbs of Shanghai.
  • A shadow falls across West Yan’an Road, below, from the Yan’an Elevated Expressway. The municipality of Shanghai completed the construction of the expressway, which soars directly above the major thoroughfare of Yan’an Road, just four years after breaking ground in 1995. Although the elevated expressway connects with the existing road infrastructure, some residents complain that the expressway has deepened the isolation and invisibility of these neighborhoods.
  • In 2005, a large American design firm was awarded first prize for its design proposal in a competition launched by the Shenzhen government. Four years later, 95 percent of the 550 families in Gangxia West Village had signed agreements with the developer to move out, and nearly 50 percent of the buildings had been demolished as the plan moved forward.
  • A traditional Shanghai <em>longtang</em> (alleyway) neighborhood along Weihai Road was granted historic landmark status and is protected even as development continues all around it.
  • The 696 Art Factory neighborhood, located in the center of Shanghai, is one of the newest clusters of galleries and artists’ live-in studios. They were informally converted from what was once a bankrupt automobile-parts factory. While it takes a long time for such developments to change into residential or high-density commercial use sites, having art-related businesses move onto the run-down former industrial land is often seen as economically favorable. This can lift the commercial value of the land. Eventually, the pioneering artists and galleries will be priced out of the market, which is what has also happened in Shanghai’s Moganshan and Beijing’s 798 districts.
  • The skyline of Shanghai’s Lujiazui Financial Center in Pudong District is reflected by a mirror lying in a demolition site, January 2010.
  • A computer-generated image of new real estate development depicts the predicted boom in Changning District, due to newly announced plans for redeveloping nearby Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport, October 2009.
  • One of the last remaining residences in the Moganshan Art District awaits its inevitable demolition, January 2010. Because of its location adjacent to Suzhou Creek Park, the site was slated to be cleaned up before the 2010 Shanghai Expo (which opened in May 2010) and demolition was sped up to meet the deadline. In the background is Zhongyuan Liangwan Cheng, one of the largest residential compounds in Shanghai.
  • The Tongchuan Road Wholesale Fruit Market in Shanghai’s Putuo District is busy with activity during an evening in January 2010. The land of the market is collectively owned by the former farmers of the village that previously occupied the site.
  • Extremely narrow alleys between buildings are common in urban villages, such as in this scene in Gangxia West Village. Here the buildings on each side are referred to as “handshake” buildings. These narrow alleys are fire safety concerns and are not in compliance with building code. But housing is more complex than building codes and blueprints.

Decades of unprecedented economic growth have affected the lives of more than a generation of mainland Chinese and reshaped the urban structure of cities. China has become one of the most exciting and permissive places in the world to practice architecture.

From 2009 to early 2010, Marcel Baumler and I conducted research in China with the support of a Rafael Viñoly Architecture Research Fellowship, which is run by a New York-based architectural firm, Rafael Viñoly Architects, PC. Our project was an attempt to better understand how cities and people in China adapt to rapid urban change by looking beyond China’s impressive growth figures and statistics. Our research focused on housing in Shenzhen and Shanghai, two cities with distinct urban development models that have been replicated elsewhere around the country. Photography was an essential research method for the project.

Shanghai and Shenzhen are representative of many cities that face intense competition for land. An increasing need for affordable housing confronts demands for market-oriented housing projects.

In the series of photographs in Shenzhen, migrant workers struggled with the rising cost of living and a shrinking pool of affordable housing, forcing them into ever more improvised housing arrangements on formerly collectively-owned land, which, over time, have coalesced into a number of “urban villages.” In Shanghai, long-term residents made do in barely habitable dwellings—ironically located in the prime location of the city center—as they waited in desperation for their homes to be demolished so that the government would relocate them to the suburbs.

Much has already changed for the people I photographed. In August 2009, Mr. Li and his family moved into a single 25-square-meter room in a formal residential compound for which they paid the same amount of rent—RMB 1,200 per month—that had allowed them to have a two-bedroom apartment in Gangxia West Village.



Pressures and Distortions

Edited by Ned Kaufman

Pressures and Distortions looks at the design, building, and interpretation of cities from the point of view of their residents.The cities chronicled in depth include examples from China (Shanghai and Shenzhen), Latin America (Bogotá and Mexico City), and Indonesia (Banda Aceh...

In 2010, one year after I photographed the residents in Lanes 1289 and 1290 West Yan’an Road, Lane 1290 remained the same and Ms. Ding continued to live there. Under increasing pressure from the residents in Lane 1289, the Shanghai government, which wanted to avoid social unrest during the Shanghai Expo, began to demolish the neighborhood and most of its residents moved to the suburbs. But after the Expo, the demolition and relocation ceased and residents of Lane 1289 who haven’t been relocated remain there now surrounded by their partially demolished neighborhood.

Hai Zhang

Born in Kunming, China, Hai Zhang is an architect by training and profession. Photography was at first a work-related activity that became a tool to question the contexts of his identity, whether...