A Burden or A Tool?  Rationalizing Public Housing Provision in Chinese Cities

Public housing is widely discussed as an important component of the welfare state that provides affordable homes for vulnerable populations. Local governments play a key role in shaping and financing public housing programs. 

Through the lens of China, we examine its growing cities and provide an alternative view of public housing on local political agendas. 

A Global Scope on the Productive Capability of Public Housing

We situate our study in the debates about state intervention and the “welfare mix” in public housing regimes: economic goals v.s. social considerations, when welfare states interact with capitalist markets. 


We draw lessons from West Europe and East Asia and focus on the example of China. 


The Consumptive and Productive Features of Public Housing 


China’s Most Ambitious Public Housing Program

Since 2008, China’s central government ambitiously promised to build “36 million public housing units” in the Twelfth Five-Year Plan 2011-2015 (TFYP), and strictly imposed provision targets on local governments. 


This top-down plan led to both heterogeneity and commonality in municipal responses. 

We use the term “public housing” interchangeably with China’s “shehuibaozhangfang,” a crucial entity of China’s welfare state.


How did municipal governments design city-specific public housing programs in response to central mandates? To what extent and why do local programs differ? 

We design an open-ended, case-based inductive research which aims to reveal nuance and intricacy of local policy design. 


Case studies focus on public housing provision in two high-profile, industrializing and deindustrializing cities—Chongqing and Shenzhen, respectively. 


We find that, despite variegated local conditions, Chinese municipal governments strategically provide public housing as an instrument of city development. 

The observed discrepancies and commonalities in local practices reveal that China’s production of public housing is contingent both on top-down mandates and on city-specific development goals. 


Municipal actions demonstrate that: 


cities prioritize different industries at different development stages.


the human capital needs for industrial advancement influence population targets for public housing provision.


cities tolerate rule breaking to attract productive populations and stress the rule of law to expel populations with low productivity.


concomitant with industrial development is the state-curated social and spatial restructuring.


municipal administrations set city-based growth objectives for short terms (3-5 years), neglecting issues of social equity, regional competition, and long-term economic sustainability. 

A Chongqing-Shenzhen comparison presents that their public housing programs differed in three main aspects: target population, spatial strategy and public housing producer.


The two cases demonstrate appreciable, meaningful variations in their policy responses to specific local conditions. 


We construct an open-ended framework that systematizes hypotheses that assemble the patterns of dynamic relationships among constituents of local decision-making, mediating the dimensions of development stage, time and space.


The Conceptual Framework Rationalizing Municipal Decision-Making in Public Housing Provision

China’s new shift at the crossroads suggests the potential to develop an alternative philosophy of the “Enabling State.” The enabling state “enables” by forming and managing partnerships with private and voluntary players to provide services, which gives individuals opportunities to escape poverty and the context in which they can improve themselves. The enabling approach differs from conventional measures for it offers opportunities and choices rather than substantive material benefits. 


Colleen CHIU-SHEE 

MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning


Siqi Zheng

MIT China Future City Lab, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, 

Center for Real Estate


Colleen CHIU-SHEE and Siqi Zheng. "A Burden or A Tool? Rationalizing Public Housing Provision in Chinese Cities" Housing Studies.

Web and Visuals

Graphics from the paper.


The material on this website can be used freely. We just ask that it is duly credited as a project by MIT China Future City Lab, and a PDF is sent to cfclab@mit.edu.