Features | Society | East Asia

China’s Housing Crunch Takes to the Rooftops

Hitherto illegal – and often bizarre – rooftop construction could be at least a partial solution to China’s urban housing crunch.

By Gregory Noddin Poulin for
China’s Housing Crunch Takes to the Rooftops

Zhang Biqing’s fantastical rooftop villa

Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

China’s 850 cities are witnessing the largest urbanization movement in human history. By 2025 China is expected to have 221 cities with over a million inhabitants and 23 cities with more than 5 million people. Such explosive urban growth is straining Chinese infrastructure. In order to sustain the close to one billon people expected to be living in cities by 2030, China will be required to meet the tremendous demand for access to resources, education, healthcare, and increasingly, affordable housing for internal migrants.

In 1985, only 20 percent of Chinese citizens resided in urban areas, today that number has swelled to over 50 percent. Much of China’s economic growth has been, and will continue to be, propelled by urbanization. The result has been massive internal migration driven by poor farmers and laborers seeking economic opportunity in cities. An estimated 10 million rural residents, the equivalent of the entire population of a medium-sized European country, are moving into Chinese cities per year. Many flee rural areas to escape extreme poverty in hope of urban employment – of the close to 400 million Chinese citizens who subsist on less than $2 per day, most reside in rural areas.

While China’s transforming urban landscape is projected to include construction of 50,000 new skyscrapers over the next two decades, much of this construction will be dedicated high-end office, retail, and residential space, leaving many of China’s urban working poor and internal migrants struggling to find affordable housing. For urbanization to be successful, China will need to develop clear and proficient strategies to confront the pressing migrant housing crisis, including reforming elements of the hukou system.

Scant housing to accommodate millions of new urban residents, has forced many internal migrants to turn to illegal housing and construction projects as a means of shelter. Dubbed “urban villages,” these makeshift structures are often hastily – and illegally – constructed on vacant land or in abandoned buildings to serve as homes for migrant workers and urban poor. While providing low-cost housing to millions of poor urban workers, urban villages are often poorly constructed and prone to collapse in the event of natural disaster.

Despite the inherent danger, illegal housing is often the only option available to poor workers. One such worker constructed a small house 150 feet off the ground between connecting walls of two high-rise apartment buildings in the city of Nanjing. The occupant refused requests by the city government to vacate the property until being justly compensated for construction costs.

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Following a 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Sichuan province that destroyed thousands of poorly and many illegally constructed buildings and schools, resulting in the deaths of more than 70,000 people in 2008, Chinese officials began implementing and enforcing new regulations against these makeshift homes. While cracking down on illegal construction and housing projects, Chinese officials have been slow to provide viable alternatives for housing migrant workers and the urban poor.

The first step toward integrating millions of new urbanites requires developing safe and affordable housing. One possible solution is in fact to encourage the spread of rooftop construction throughout China. Commonly constructed on top of shopping malls, factories, or other commercial real estate ventures, rooftop homes range from the practical to fantastical. Residential rooftop construction in China earned international headlines in 2013 when Dr. Zhang Biqing built an eccentric hanging garden-mountain on top of his penthouse villa 26 stories above Beijing by skirting city officials and building ordinances. Over the course of six years and $4 million dollars, Zhang constructed an elaborate two-story 8,000 square foot addition complete with shrubs, rock formations, walkways and pools reportedly modeled after an ancient Chinese painting depicting a mountainous landscape. Ultimately, Beijing’s urban management ordered Zhang to remove the structure.

While Zhang’s urban mountain retreat proves to be an extravagant example, other urban construction, both legal and illegal, has been proliferating across Chinese rooftops in recent years. Entire residential neighborhoods resembling picturesque Western suburban towns are sprouting up on the rooftops of commercial buildings in many of China’s cities.

One of the most prominent examples of illegal rooftop construction is a sprawling residential home development covering an area the size of three football fields on top of a furniture shopping center in the city of Hengyang in Hunan province. Shortly after construction began in 2009 the Hengyang Urban Planning Bureau issued a penalty notice to the developer, the Hengyang Wings Group Company, asking for the first four buildings to be removed voluntarily. Rather than comply with the city ordinance Yongxing continued development of several other buildings through 2011 until all 25 villas were finished. Complete with wraparound verandahs, sidewalks, white picket fences and extensive landscaping, the 25 properties were slated to be sold as private homes before the city intervened.

Because the homes were erected without construction project planning, license or sales permits the city government ordered they be torn down, unless they were not sold for profit. Wang Jianxin, general manger of the development, told a local newspaper that to avoid demolition “The houses are now dormitories for our employees. Some migrant workers who took part in the villas’ construction are also living in them.” Despite being built without permits, the villas are structurally sound and utilize space that would otherwise remain unoccupied to house China’s flourishing urban populations.

A similar project saw four large villas legally constructed on the roof of an eight-story shopping mall in the central Chinese city of Zhuzhou. The four identical two-story homes have large grassy yards, meticulous maintained gardens, and sidewalks reminiscent of many quiet suburban towns. This unique type of construction could be utilized to provide China’s burgeoning cities with some respite from the dearth of affordable residential real estate menacing its metropolises.

Developing secure and affordable housing and infrastructure to sustain the influx of migrant workers will pose one of the greatest domestic challenges to Chinese urban planners in the coming two decades. From the bizarre to the practical, rooftop housing has demonstrated the potential to provide a feasible solution to China’s budding urban housing crisis.

Gregory Poulin is a visiting graduate student at Harvard University where he studies government and globalization.