Social Housing and Real Estate Development for a Livable

Huang Weiwen

translated by Huang Xiangjun

The development of real estate and the growth of a city are blindsided by each other. They suffer from a lack of integration.There are countless expert forums and media commentaries on issues of real estate development, and as many researchers and scholars debating about urban planning issues. Yet they seem to only have the capacity to discuss the respective topics within their own fields, failing to bring the two subjects together. The intersection of these two fields can offer a fertile ground for new research if the scholars can refocus their perspectives and interests. Developers in China should be well aware that they are the real builders of a city, with approximately half of the city within their grasp. Chinese urban planners should be cognizant of the operations of real estate development, in order to appreciate how good urban planning can be realized. Only when the real motivations behind real estate development are understood, can it become a constructive force behind the design and planning of cities in China.

From Self-Organized and Communal to the Commodity Market Before the advent of modern real estate development, residential architecture was self-organized and privately built. To build a residence prior to the professionalization of the field, one needed to seek help from neighbors, friends and relatives, or assemble a team of expert laborers and artisans. Once a prospective building owner has a comprehensive knowledge of the local climate, materials and cultural practices, it would lead to an appropriate form of architecture. These common houses would aggregate to form a compact city, within which the architecture would be tight-knit and of the same vernacular typology. Examples include the siheyuan courtyard houses of old Beijing, or the Naxi houses of old Lijiang. The era of self-constructed houses in Chinese cities may well have ended when the last dingzihu “nail house” is removed. There is often a strong sense of attachment to such self-made homes, hence stories of resistance against urban redevelopment in China are not uncommon. In modern planning, big developers and real estate conglomerates have replaced the individual home builders. They organize, plan, design, and construct houses and apartments on a large scale in highly repetitive and mechanized forms. There are also constructions funded by the public sector, such as government office buildings, public institutions, infrastructure systems, and large scale social housing. The forces that used to shape a city have shriveled from a vibrant, multi-dimensional and participatory one to a bipolar condition of the government and private developer.

Comprehensive System and Subsidies The issue of large-scale market and social housing must be approached in terms of policy and strategy. More studies must be conducted on land policy, funding, distribution, and circulation, such that design can be better informed. In the fields of urban planning and architectural design, suggestions can only be made in the context of existing standards, and in terms of gradual improvements. Taking Shenzhen as an example, the housing market once had a long period of stability, where every household had a shelter because there was a comprehensive housing supply system that catered to a population with a broad range of income levels. Resettlement areas built in the earlier stages of urban development, and the coexistence of dense urban villages serve as a form of social security in terms of affordable housing for populations with low income. Even though such housing were supplied by the market, the government played a role in subsidizing them. The land on which the farmers in the urban villages had built their homes were made available cheaply.

Higher up the housing market chain, there were low-profit housing being constructed and managed by the municipal government. These homes had selling and rental prices that were lower than the market price, but higher than that of welfare housing. Welfare housing were only available to senior staff working in state-owned companies and enterprises. Such employees represent the middle-income class, and the housing security they are entitled to is part of a reward structure. Lastly, unsubsidized market housing is available for the general public with high income. These different tiers of housing formed a relatively comprehensive and complete housing supply system, and it gave stability to the entire housing situation in Shenzhen. Unfortunately, the housing department in Shenzhen was dissolved in 2004 due to new policies passed by the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. There was a push to privatize and commodify housing at a national level, leading to imbalances in housing distribution and skyrocketing prices.

Structural Imbalance and Shortage There are multiple reasons for the increase in housing prices. Shortage of the provision of subsidies and social housing is just one of them. Based on the total housing supply in China, the urban living space per capita is 30 square meters, which is equivalent to a moderately developed country. The living space per capita for Shenzhen is even higher at 40 square meters. The “house shortage” problem is therefore an issue of structural imbalance, not that there is an actual shortage in supply, or a lack of housing units. Many existing housing units remain sold but unoccupied. In order to provide a shelter for every household, policy-makers first need to ensure that housing can be maximized and occupied. The correct remedy to the problem is not to build more housing, but to improve the distribution of the existing in-stock housing such that vacant housing can be occupied by those in need of housing.

Low-Income Communities To tackle some of the housing issues in China, one has to have a vivid awareness of the lives of the low-income community. Some of them are street vendors selling goods on their mobile stalls, others may render informal services for a small community. To the urban poor, a home is not just a place to sleep, but also a place to work and live. For example, the Yuanlin neighborhood in the city of Shenzhen used to be a welfare housing community with excellent architectural and neighborhood design. But as the original residents moved out over time, it evolved into a low-income neighborhood. It deteriorated from welfare housing for the middle-income to affordable housing for the low-income. Media reports suggested that the environment in Yuanlin was considered by the government to be slum-like – walls in the housing units were torn down to make storefronts, and informal street stalls were set up without permission. Multiple municipal departments were called upon to rectify these issues.

In a city undergoing constant transformation, the expectation and mentality of an orderly neighborhood with an aesthetic outlook is unrealistic, if not deeply problematic. For a community that had been transformed by newer low-income residents, the reconfigurations in the housing fabric were made in order to meet the basic daily needs of its residents. The living standards of a low-income group are bound to be different from that of the middle-income, therefore it is not appropriate to simply use urban policy to turn Yuanlin back into a tidy and clean neighborhood. Due to complex problems at the level of policy-making, planners and architects should think of the issue of large-scale housing in a broader way. For example, design solutions are still sorely needed in terms of the entire housing provision chain. Greater flexibility in design is required to cater for uncertainty in the demand and supply of housing, and for a lack of clarity of the target groups in need of social housing.

Basic Principles of Affordability and Livability The design of good social housing is not necessarily related to a mere sense of aesthetics and artistic concerns. The greater responsibility is for architects and planners to identify and study the users, and discover a way to communicate and interact with them. Architects and planners have to reevaluate existing professional knowledge and design methods that are currently geared towards serving commercial clients and interests. Can Chinese architects return to the basic principles of good housing design? Can housing be made affordable to the general public again? While it is ideal to realize affordable housing quickly, it is necessary to be aware that the process of design cannot be reckless. It is perhaps timely to accept that patience is required to bring about improvements. The production of housing in Shenzhen can transform from a process based on speed to one based on quality. Affordable housing can be achieved in a more direct and efficient way, if design can go beyond the meeting of planning requirements stipulated by code. Design must have an impact on the formulation of policies and strategies related to funding, land use, distribution, user needs, location, amenities, unit types, materials, green technology, in order to attain a higher standard of housing.

In China, the general public’s aspiration for better living spaces and a more affordable city can only be realized through agencies such as governments and developers. Citizens participation and leadership in the town and community model of development can no longer exist in China. Hence it is more meaningful to reestablish the relationship between “real estate” and the city, instead of “housing” and the city, because real estate development has become the primary driving force for Chinese cities today. There are five important roles that real estate in China has to play towards the creation of a more livable city.

Genuine Equality Firstly, there has to be a better accessibility to natural resources, and an equitable sharing and enjoyment of amenities and views of landscapes in the city. To use Shanghai as an example, the early developments of the concessionary period were well planned and regulated – a street grid that connected the city with the scenery of the Bund, viewing the Huangpu River as one of the main natural landscape features of the city. Compare this to Lake Xiangmi of Shenzhen, which was one the major tourist attractions in the past. Today, public access along the eastern edge of this lake is completely blocked by two large-scale private housing sites. The real estate advertisements blatantly declared this exploitation of public resources – “Hugging Lake Xiangmi, You Own the Lakeview.” Residents eastward of these two sites can no longer gain access to the views of the lake, thus reducing the livability of the city as a whole. This desire to gain exclusivity over access and views to landscape amenities and natural resources is commonplace in China.

Openness and Connectivity Secondly, housing has to enjoy a good degree of openness in the city, and ease of connectivity of the street networks. In China, the stakeholders of real estate development have a perverse enjoyment of the “big fours” – planners like to create big urban blocks, governments like to sell big plots of land, developers like to build on big sites, and consumers like to live in big gated garden neighborhoods. In the Panyu District of Guangzhou, housing sites are at least hundreds of acres, fully secured and privatized with fences and security guards. Residents have to take private shuttle buses provided by the developers to do their groceries or watch a movie in the city, often taking half a day just to leave the gated neighborhood. In the beginning, the white-collar residents were enthusiastic about moving into these new “5-star homes.”But with a lack of urban vitality and connectivity, the residents promptly returned to the city for their movie theaters, ice cream parlors, herbal tea stalls, and late-night eateries. They ultimately preferred the congested but vibrant street life of a city.

Access to Public Space and Services Public space and public service are vital to a healthy community, adding a third aspect to the livability of a city. The garden environments in private real estates in China are abundantly branded “5-stars” in advertisements, and covered in exotic plants, ponds, rocky gardens, and every luxuriant green imaginable. This green area routinely takes up 50% of a given site area, but unfortunately, the gardens often have nothing to do with the city or the public. These gated gardens repeatedly fail to even satisfy the needs of the elderly and children who reside right next to them, even when these residents only require a small open space where they can dance, exercise, bike, and play. There is the issue of having the right membership to use the space at the right time. In fact, younger residents who stay up and wake up late would complain about the elderly for being too loud in their morning exercise routines. A gated garden or an urban park that is three bus stops away cannot solve this problem. The public needs an intelligently located public space that is close to the community. A thirty to fifty square meter public open space or a 300 square meter public room – taking up only 5% of developable land and 0.3% floor area ratio – but adequate in satisfying the requirements for public activities and services. This shows lush but inaccessible green public spaces do not necessarily create a harmonious relationship between the residents, the public and the city.

Social Integration and Reduction of Class Segregation Social integration is the fourth role in how the real estate in China can add livability to a city. Meticulous property management and services are representative characteristics of the Chinese real estate. The hallmark of a “5-star” home must have quality services from the threebaos –janitors (bao’jie), security guards (bao’an), and maids (bao’mu). Who thinks about where these service staff might reside? They normally live in the basements, between the pilotis, and on the rooftops of the elaborate real estate developments they serve. How do they feel about working in “5-star homes” in the day, and sleeping in its dark basements at night? Prominent real estate developers are conscious about building up their corporate responsibility image by committing to charitable causes. However, if they can add value to the discourse of affordable housing, if they can do their part in providing basic housing for their service staff. It would not only fulfill their social obligation as an employer, but it would bring about a closer equilibrium in a society increasingly segmented by class.

Emphasis on Quality of Life over Productivity Lastly, there has to be an appreciation of new values and a sustainable way of life.Before the implementation of the Open Door policy, China had gone through a period that emphasized production over quality of life, making no progress in the improvements in housing and building construction. By the 1990s, when China entered into an era of deregulated real estate growth, the generation who grew up in either public dormitories or commune compounds were unable to adapt to newer notions of housing. The residents in transition were overwhelmed by advertisements selling “5-star homes,” “mansions,” “Spanish-style living,” “Parisian lifestyle,” “Florida town,” and so on. The Chinese way of life as depicted by these advertisements are markedly different from the actual way of life in genuinely livable cities around the world. On one hand, these lifestyles worked with the assumption of suburbanization, elitism through race and class segregation, and an over-reliance on automobile travel as a condition of modern convenience. It gave rise to materialist attitudes, a lack of awareness in the exploitation of nature, and unchecked and wasteful consumerism. On the other hand, one could take the opportunity to build up newer values in well-planned urbanization, diversity in the community, and a return to healthy and smart bike travel. This can only lead to a more humanistic attitude, a desire to protect the natural environment, and a sensitivity towards the conservation of limited resources. Even though real estate advertisements are often exaggerated and misleading, the values espoused by the slogans can be used to project effective and real changes.

Real Estate Mechanism in the Making of a Livable City It is crucial that architects and planning professionals take the chance to reflect upon this divisive schism, and find ways to narrow the differences. There are voices from the real estate development sector arguing that the making of a livable city is the government’s responsibility. Others lament that China is not at an advanced enough stage to tackle such an issue. While governments have an important role to play, and indeed, many cities in China have set lofty goals to make their cities more livable, livability of a city is not a concept for only developed countries. China can use such a concept to speak to its latent potential in a projection towards the future, especially after decades of rapid development and utter destruction. That is to say, China is not livable at the moment not because the nation is underdeveloped, but because the notion of “livability” was ignorantly sacrificed during the process of development. The mistakes made during the rapid construction of China are difficult to correct because of an increased awareness of property rights, and long periods of leases and master planning. Only when all stakeholders and agencies related to urban development have understood and accepted true and concrete ideas of livability, can the city begin to move towards it. Without a doubt, real estate development is an integral mechanism in the making of a livable city.

This essay is translated and adapted fromHuang Weiwen, “保障房设计,我们能做什么?”Arbitare China, Issue2012/01, p.27-31, and “地产与宜居城市,”Arbitare China, Issue2011/01, p.110-113.