Homes are far off dreams for China’s migrant workers

By Fran Wang, AFP

BEIJING–He makes less than US$1,000 a month in a city where apartments can cost more than US$1 million, but even so the Chinese government is pinning its improbable hopes for a property revival on the likes of Liu Jun. The electrician and plumber is a recent addition to China’s 250 million-plus migrant workers, who have provided the labor force to transform the country’s economy in recent decades, emerging from the countryside in droves to seek better lives and incomes in the cities. Construction workers, machine operators in factories, office cleaners — the sweat of their brows has lubricated China’s growth as it expanded to become the world’s second-largest economy. But while they are free to move in search of employment, they and their children have long been denied equal access to public services such as schools, hospitals and housing under a decades-old household registration system known as “hukou.” As a result they have been denied a full share of the prosperity they have created, while a generation of their children have been “left behind” to be raised by their grandparents or other family members — or some simply left on their own. At the same time the property market that has fueled much of China’s growth has hit the doldrums in the last two years, with new buyers priced out despite government borrowing restrictions reining in soaring costs. Now authorities are trying to address both issues simultaneously, reforming the hukou system to encourage migrants to buy properties in the towns and cities where they work. Only 10 percent of migrants have bought a home in the places they have moved to, according to the World Bank. But analysts say there are multiple obstacles to the concept, not least affordability. “Without a lot of supporting policies, the initial impact will be relatively limited,” Brian Jackson, a Beijing-based analyst with research firm IHS Economics, told AFP. Liu, from Lankao in Henan — a central province that is one of China’s poorest — abandoned his life as a farmer and now earns up to 6,000 yuan (US$900) a month in Beijing.

New home prices in the capital averaged 34,925 yuan per square meter in November, according to a survey by the China Index Academy (CIA), which is linked to the country’s biggest property website. Liu dreams of owning a home in the capital, but would have to save for decades before that could come true. “I would love to stay in the city,” he said. “But I don’t have the money and so I don’t have any buying plans.” Land Rights The hukou reform plans, unveiled last week after a key four-day economic planning meeting addressed by President Xi Jinping, would make more migrants eligible for urban registrations more quickly. The thinking is that incomers would be more likely to invest in a permanent home if they could enjoy the same rights as official residents. “We must implement household registration reform plans… to cultivate (migrants’) expectations and demand for the purchase or long-term lease of a house in their place of work,” said a statement released by the official Xinhua news agency following the meeting.