Shanghai steps up fight against cubicle homes, but poor hit out

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2007, 12:00am

Shanghai's Brilliant City, a housing complex divided into a maze of more than 3,500 tiny cubicles which let for as little as 300 yuan a month, has a notorious reputation.

Last week authorities swooped on the community in the city's northwest, knocked down partitions with sledgehammers and hauled away bunk beds in a crackdown on 'group houses'.

The raid was the most visible sign to date of the government's resolve to stop landlords subdividing flats into smaller units - some with only enough room for a bedroll. The three-year-old campaign has been bolstered by new guidelines which say rooms can only be leased to individuals and families, and that each person must have at least 5 square metres of floor space.

Shanghai's average per capita living space is 16 square metres.

The government argues public health and safety are at risk. Thefts and fires are common in such units. Neighbours complain the cheap rooms have been taken over by drug dealers and prostitutes.

In a case widely reported by local media two months ago to highlight the problem, a fire in the Songjiang district killed six people in a 50-square-metre group house which had been divided into three rooms and rented to seven people.

But people living in group houses say Shanghai's surging property prices have made housing unaffordable for many people. They urge the government to meet their need for affordable homes with good transport links.

Rents across the city rose 1.7 per cent last month. The biggest increase was in the central Jingan district, where rents rose 3.5 per cent month on month, industry figures showed.

Rents on luxury homes rose 3.8 per cent year on year in the first half of this year, to an average of US$21.70 per square metre per month, according to property consultancy Colliers International.

The rule banning group houses has raised an outcry, since it effectively discourages friends, colleagues, classmates and even same-sex couples renting together. At a time when the Communist Party has stopped dictating living arrangements, the rules are an unwelcome throwback.

Zhou Zhixian, a porter at a shipyard who shares a 20-square-metre home with four others in the Pudong district, said he could not afford other housing.

'The only thing I want is a place to sleep. I don't mind whether it's comfortable or not,' he said, sitting in a room crammed with four bunk beds and personal belongings.

One academic said the Shanghai government should seek to better regulate group housing, which met an important need, instead of implementing an outright ban.

'The government should not simply ban it, but improve public management and avoid loopholes,' said Gu Jun , a sociology professor at Shanghai University.

Shanghai's subsidised housing scheme only provides for local residents, neglecting people from outside the city, such as migrant workers. Roughly 25,000 Shanghai families have received the housing benefits, just a fraction of the households classified as low-income, reports say.

Wang Haifeng of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences said the government should broaden the scheme - which offers housing at low rents - to include migrant workers. 'We have also recommended policymakers regulate the private house-rental business rather than restrict it,' she said.

Some landlords were unruffled by the crackdown, expecting it to be ineffective. One Brilliant City landlord said he had divided his 80-square-metre flat into more than seven rooms and rented them out to 20 occupants.

Another landlord said: 'I'm confident about the demand. My houses are always filled with tenants.'