A migrant laborer rides a bicycle past a residential community in Shanghai.
A migrant laborer rides a bicycle past a residential community in Shanghai. Aly Song/Reuters

In this sector of the city’s informal housing rental market, as many as 24 people can be crammed into a three-bedroom apartment.

When rural migrants flock to “first-tier“ cities like Shanghai looking for jobs, their lack of permanent residency, or hukou, push them to China’s informal housing market. Most migrants live on the outskirts, some clustering in “urban villages” and others living in storage basements and converted bomb shelters, even in sewers.

Some live among permanent residents throughout the already-overcrowded city centers—and often in high-rises. Their living conditions, though, are far from cushy. It’s common to be crammed into two- to three-bedroom apartments with more than a dozen other migrants, according to a new report from researchers at the University of Southern California.

“In big Chinese cities, [rents in] the downtown areas are super expensive, even comparable with L.A. rental prices, and I wanted to know how they can afford these places knowing that migrants in China still face a lot of institutional discrimination,” says Julia Harten, an economist specializing in East Asia at University of Southern California, who led the study. (L.A., by the way, is currently the third most unaffordable city for U.S. renters.)

In 2016, she and her colleagues began investigating the prevalence of “group rental housing,” the market for dormitory-style housing throughout major cities. It’s a lesser-known sector of the informal housing market that attracts young, college-educated migrants looking to land white-collar jobs in downtown areas but who can’t afford properties in the legitimate rental markets, says Harten. In Shanghai, the demand for rental homes as of 2019 could hit as many as 4 million units, according to the South China Morning Post, but the rental market only expects to add a few thousand homes over the next few years—which means supply is low and prices are beyond the reach of many.

Harten says it’s hard to quantify the size of the market, but they were able to find more than 33,000 online rental ads for such housing posted to sites like ganji.com—China’s equivalent to Craigslist—in Shanghai alone. Such ads can also be found in online community forums, via messaging apps like WeChat, and even on the streets via paper handouts. They typically promised shared bedrooms in apartments close to the city center or, at least, to a transit station. They advertised basic amenities like kitchens and bathrooms.

That was far from what researchers and volunteers saw when they answered 200 of those ads undercover. In reality, they found that three-bedroom apartments housed, on average, 24 people, with bunk beds crowding both the bedrooms and common areas like the kitchen—which rendered it unusable as a space for cooking. Each unit usually comes with one or two bathrooms—normal and adequate for a three-bedroom apartment housing perhaps a family of four, but not for dozens of tenants.

The average rent per bed, they found, was 43 percent higher than advertised, and the more occupants there were in an apartment, the cheaper the rent was. A bed in a really crowded apartment could cost around 300 to 400 yuan (less than $100 USD) per month according to Harten. Meanwhile a bed in the less crowded space would go for roughly $150 a month.

Brokers often asked to meet away from the apartment, and then took prospective renters to apartments that were as much as 1,000 feet away from the locations listed. When Harten and her volunteers—students from a local college—went to see the spaces, they found that many were nestled among gated communities with high-rises that house middle-class families. “The impression was that the bigger the gated community was, the more likely this would happen,” she says. “There’s this absentee landlord phenomenon in which an intermediary rents from the original owner and then rents out beds.” Other listings took them to old offices, extra rooms in an occupied apartment, and even an old kindergarten with rooms carved out.

Like other top-tier cities, Shanghai has been tackling overcrowding that has overwhelmed the environment and its public infrastructure, including its transit, education, and medical care systems. Chinese officials labeled these problem as “big city diseases” and in 2017, the country announced plans to cap Shanghai’s population growth to just 25 million by 2035. At the time, the city already clocked in at around 24 million people, nearly 40 percent of whom were urban migrants, who don’t qualify for public assistance like medical care and affordable housing.

In smaller cities, with populations between 1 million and 3 million, China is easing hukou restrictions. But in Shanghai, it’s looking at various policy changes—including limiting land for development to just 1,235 square miles—that would help control things like housing availability and affordability, and space for industries that attract migrants, as one housing researcher told Marketplace in 2018. There are other measures aimed at migrants, including targeting the informal housing market. In fact, the government in 2017 began scrubbing websites like ganji.com of such housing ads and censoring terms like “bed space.“

“When I went back in 2018 to actually live in one of those places myself, it was much harder to find them,” says Harten. “So they've cracked down on this quite a bit, especially in the city center. They might be still more common as you get further away, but the market definitely has shrunk.”

Though they may be harder to find, Harten says such informal dormitories still exist. To see the living conditions, she rented a bed in a two-bedroom apartment with 21 other women on the ground floor of a high-rise building. She shared one of the bedrooms with seven women, and one bathroom with everyone. “The kitchen had been turned into a storage room for luggage; the living room and hallway also had beds, which were custom made to be really narrow and not that tall,” she says. “There’s no other furniture so as soon as you get home, you go right to your bed.”

Her roommates were mostly in their early twenties working office jobs in the city center. One woman, in her early fifties, followed her husband to the city. He lived in the same arrangement in an all-male apartment nearby. The women told Harten they found their living situation “inconvenient,” but ultimately chose it because of the apartment’s proximity to their jobs.

There were few interactions among the women, Harten says. Most hardly looked up from their phones. Lights stayed on until 1 a.m., and people’s alarms went off every 10 minutes starting at 6 in the morning. The women worked long hours and there was often a line to the bathroom, which was used to shower, get ready in the morning, and do laundry. “So there was very little downtime,” she says.

Harten adds that she had friends living in the same building, but until she told them what was going on on the ground floor, they were none the wiser—not uncommon among city residents, who she says had a hard time believing that such a phenomenon wasn’t a thing that “happened in the past.”

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