House hunting in the working class zone of Shenzhen


I live in one of the biggest cities in China, numbering 20 million people in a city the size of Toronto, Canada. It’s busy and bustling and there’s people to be found and things to do at any hour, day or night. People from all over the country come here to work and find riches and this leads to a crises in housing. China is the third largest country in the world but is the most populated with 1.4 billion people. Half of the population lives in the cities where space is tight and rents are expensive.

Where I live in Shenzhen, the rent is cheaper than in the city, but it is all relative. The people that live in my area are mostly working class; migrants from small towns and farms working long hours in factories and in the service industry, earning just a few dollars an hour. While the average worker puts in daily shifts of 10–12 hours, six to seven days a week, the pay only comes out to be 2500–3000 Yuan ($500–600 CAD). Because of a housing demand in the cities, seven story plus buildings are everywhere. Each floor can contain anywhere from four to 12 apartments — and nearly every single one is occupied. Many of the migrant workers live in “dormitories” rented or paid for by their employers with anywhere from four to 10 beds in a room and a communal toilet.

I was never aware of rental prices in this area because I never had to look for a place to live. I was lucky that my company provided me with free housing in a relatively large and comfortable apartment. My friend, Alex, just landed a new job and needed to find a place to live. Knowing that my area has low rent, he invited me to come along and help him look at some places. I’ve seen apartments in Shenzhen before. They’re tight; just enough room for a bed and a small table, a small space for a kitchen served by a sink and a hot plate, and a tiny bathroom where one can do nature’s business and take a shower all in one spot. In fact, these apartments remind me a lot of the housing situation in Hong Kong. Of course, the bigger you want it, the more expensive it becomes.

But for small one-bedroom places like these, the rent is quite low — in comparison to western costs. One apartment I visited with Alex was 1200 ($240 CAD) Yuan per month with Wi-Fi included, but without utilities. But it was hardly a place I could choose to live in. It is nothing but a room with enough space for a bed, a small table to eat on and perhaps place a clothing rack in the corner. A small corridor through the bedroom leads to a small kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen contains only enough space for a small counter to place a hotplate on for cooking dinner and next to it a small sink basin. The man living in this apartment did not care for upkeep nor cleanliness. Cigarette stains and black marks linked three of the four walls, while the fourth wall had a large poster taped on with a picture of blonde bikini clad model that looked starkly like someone from Baywatch. The location is also not ideal — nearly an hour subway ride to the city centre, where work is.

Apartments like these in dilapidated buildings with typical, cream, pink or grey colour cover the hilly and mountainous landscape of Guangdong province, China. But in a city that has boomed and is continuing to boom and offers the dream of one day striking it rich, there just isn’t enough space to put everyone. And so, small cramped quarters like what I saw are commonplace. Migrant workers, newly married couples and small families make use of cheap residences. It’s hard to imagine there are enough homes to house the 20 million people living in Shenzhen. But one look at the landscape scattered with high-storey buildings standing next to each other explains a lot. While there are countless multi-storey buildings an arm’s length away, finding an affordable apartment is harder than it seems. Nearly every place is filled and in the three hours Alex and I spent house hunting, only two apartments were available. We covered a distance on foot that stretched three or four kilometres and called over three dozen advertisements; all to no avail. I’ve been told the demand for housing in Shenzhen is so great, that apartments listed online are snapped up within a matter of hours. Waiting to find the perfect place is no easy task.


Originally written May 2015