Even owning a home 70km from Shenzhen is becoming a faraway dream for those working there

The plight of one 30-something couple SCMP met – working in one city but house hunting in another – is being endured by countless thousands nationwide

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 October, 2016, 8:05pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 October, 2016, 10:42pm

Thousands of young professional Chinese couples, unable to afford sky-high housing prices in the country’s first-tier cities, are pouring into neighbouring smaller cities in the hope to finding somewhere affordable to live, while still being able to work in a metropolis.

It’s a scenario that played out decades ago in Tokyo, as the Japanese capital expanded.

But in China, this kind of lifestyle for many is still a faraway dream.

Miss Li, a 30-year-old office worker from Shenzhen, travelled to Huizhou with her husband during the National Day “golden week” holiday, in search of an apartment to buy.

“We want to live in Huizhou, but still work in Shenzhen,” she said.

A little-known city in southern Guangdong province with a population of 19 million, Huizhou has become one of the new darlings of the Chinese property market because of its proximity to Shenzhen.

Just 70 kilometers from China’s booming technology hub, prices here are a sixth of its biggest neighbour, now considered the country’s most expensive city.

Li and her husband were particularly interested in the “Galaxy Dante” development, as it is close to the high-speed railway station, Huizhou South.

By train, they can be in Shenzhen in half an hour, but their real hope is that within a few years, Huizhou will effectively become part “Greater Shenzhen”.

The Shenzhen government recently announced the five-year “Eastward Shift Strategic Action Plan”, which involves accelerating the regional economic integration of Shenzhen and its eastern neighbours Huizhou and Dongguan.

A subway line is also expected to connect Shenzhen and Huizhou.

Both of us need to arrive at the office before 8am, so is it really so realistic to live here [in Huizhou]? Then again, this might be the only way we can afford to live in our own house, and still work in Shenzhen
Li, a 30-year-old office worker, working in Shenzhen

As Li toured Galaxy Dante with the development’s sales advisor, impressive banners around the site promised a bright, comfortable future. Most were hanging on still incomplete towerblocks, but they were certainly eye-catching.

“Dante will be the first to benefit from the Shenzhen’s eastward shift”, said one.

But Li admitted she was worried, and a bit disillusioned.

“The prices are bit outside our budget. In fact, both of us need to arrive at the office before 8am, so is it really so realistic to live here?

“Then again, this might be the only way we can afford to live in our own home, and still work in Shenzhen,” she said.

Apart from its brand new and modern residential buildings, much of Huizhou still looks underdeveloped.

There are very limited transportation options. Dante’s developer does offer a shuttle bus to the

railway station, but that stops at 6pm. The road is bumpy, and on rainy days is quickly gets waterlogged. Taxi services are irregular – all a very different world for those considering the move there from the organised surroundings of Shenzhen.

Huizhou was even considered one of China’s so-called “ghost towns” as recently as last year, overbuilt and even near a nuclear power station. Housing complexes were everywhere. Most were idle and empty.

But this year, with prices soaring in Shenzhen, and the government putting restrictions on some non-local residents from buying a house in the city, many migrant workers have been forced to consider Huizhou.

Even Galaxy Dante’s prices have skyrocketed more than 70 per cent in the past year to 15,800 yuan per square meter, and are now on a par with second-tier cities.

Last year the average salary of a new graduate in Shenzhen was 7,335 yuan per month, with the median monthly salary in the city just 3,764 yuan.

There are thousands of people like Li and her husband, being forced to live away from the city in which they work, in surrounding cities which are neither cheap nor convenient.

Li Xunlei, chief economist at Haitong Securities, says such growing metropolitan areas “are becoming the [country’s biggest] development trend, but progress is very slow”, he said.

The urgent need, he adds, is for local authorities of smaller cities to improve employment levels, public services and social welfare, so they can retain the people.

But instead, he adds too much financial expenditure is still being poured into residential construction projects, a huge difference from the economic priorities of western countries.

“Nowadays there are much fewer jobs in smaller cities because of overcapacity,” he added.

Han Shitong, deputy director of the Guangdong Real Estate Industrial Research Association, said most of China’s resources are still concentrated in the larger cities, and that the central government needs to consider a system designed to help the surrounding cities too.

“A city with a gloomy economic outlook, but high home prices,” he added. “That’s abnormal.”