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    Room to Grow: Shanghai’s Housing Solution for Migrant Workers

    A new housing project aims to provide affordable living spaces across the city for low- and middle-income residents. Encompassing 188 distinct projects across various neighborhoods so far, the initiative plans to increase the total rental units to over 600,000 by 2025.
    Dec 26, 2023#Shanghai

    SHANGHAI — Deep in debt and with just 1,000 yuan (then around $152) in his pocket, Liu Qiang arrived in Shanghai in 2016 with a dream and a mission: either die in a strange land or return home in glory, perhaps driving a luxury car or living in a mansion. 

    However, on his very first day, Liu fell victim to a job scam, in which a middleman stripped him of half his already meager savings, left him without work, and forced him to sleep in a metro station. 

    “Back then, I just wanted to survive and live a decent life in Shanghai,” says Liu, who drifted from city to city, working in factories and at street stalls, before moving to Shanghai. 

    After his disastrous start, Liu finally sought help from friends, who helped him land a job at a security firm. Over the next six years, he made his way up and is now a project manager at the same company. Though a significant leap from his days as a patrol officer, his wife and children still live in his hometown of Handan in the northern Hebei province. 

    Today, Liu’s ambitions extend beyond professional achievements. His most pressing goal is to buy an apartment in Shanghai, a formidable task given the city’s high property prices. Even away from the city center, housing costs can reach 30,000 yuan ($4,200) per square meter — far out of reach for Liu, who earns 8,000 yuan a month, and many like him. 

    Recognizing this, the Shanghai municipal government has launched a housing project aimed at providing affordable living spaces for its burgeoning population. So far, the project is spread across 188 projects in various neighborhoods, from bustling downtown areas to quieter suburbs. 

    And by 2025, the Shanghai government plans to increase the total rental units to 600,000 to address the urgent need for housing that caters to low- and middle-income residents like Liu. 

    Liu currently lives in one such unit, the “Home of the New Era City Managers,” a new affordable rental housing scheme launched in July in Shanghai’s Minhang District. This particular scheme, managed by China Resources Land, is designed to support workers in sectors such as construction, delivery, sanitation, security, and domestic help. 

    In November, Liu and three colleagues moved from a company dormitory to this housing project, where they currently share a four-person room. Liu’s employer covers his rent, which ranges from 500 yuan a month for a four-person room to 900 yuan for a double room. 

    The same compound also offers larger living spaces, costing 2,200 yuan for a single 30-square-meter room, and approximately 3,500 yuan for a larger 60-square-meter unit. The prices are roughly 10% below the typical market rate in Shanghai.

    Speaking to Sixth Tone, Cheng Jie, a recent college graduate employed at a Shanghai bank, said she discovered the project on social media. She now resides in a 30-square-meter room and says she appreciates the community’s atmosphere, diverse amenities, and policies that support young professionals like herself. 

    Qian Lili, 43, who works at a local nursing home, lives in a double room adjacent to Liu’s. Originally, Qian bought an apartment in her hometown of Yancheng, in Jiangsu province, hoping to pass it on for her son’s marriage. 

    However, as her son grew and pursued studies in Shanghai, she began to contemplate relocating her family to the city for retirement. “Working in nursing and witnessing how fleeting life can be, I’ve realized the importance of being close to family,” she says. 

    However, the challenges of settling in Shanghai aren’t just about financial concerns. Li Xiaohui, a 33-year-old gardener from Datong, in the northern Shanxi province, grapples with personal dilemmas. 

    He deeply regrets missing family events — his father had a stroke in 2021 and his grandmother passed away — due to work commitments and transportation issues. While he has considered moving his family to Shanghai, the transition is complicated by his parents’ attachment to their hometown’s lifestyle.

    To ease the pressure, Li bought a car for emergencies. Yet, he faces societal pressures, like the expectation to own a home for marriage in his hometown. “I doubt I can earn quickly enough to fulfill my parents’ expectations, given my current job and housing costs,” says Li, adding that he’s considering returning to his hometown if marriage becomes imminent.

    Meanwhile, Liu is determined to stay in Shanghai. As a migrant worker with limited formal education, he’s now pursuing a college degree through adult education, often studying after hours in his dormitory. His goal is to reach the 120-point threshold to obtain a Shanghai household registration, or the hukou, which will allow his children to take the local college entrance exam and have better opportunities.

    Liu’s third son was born in July, deepening his sense of responsibility. “I was at my lowest when I got married,” says Liu. “I couldn’t afford a dowry and have always felt a debt of gratitude. My hope is to provide a home for them with my efforts.” 

    “It’s a challenging journey, but I’m starting by renting a house, and one day I hope to fulfill my dream of buying a mansion and a luxury car.”

    (Header image: A view of the living community at a Shanghai housing project. All photos by Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)