Broken dreams, shattered families in China’s unfinished apartments

By Laurie Chen and Xiaoyu Yin

TONGCHUAN, China (Reuters) – Construction worker Shi Tieniu bought a presale apartment in an industrial city in northwestern China’s Shaanxi province, billed as a “superior product” to be “passed down through generations”.

Eight years later, it is an unfinished shell, and every night he must climb 20 flights of stairs to sleep in a threadbare room without water, heating or electricity.

“I almost never drink water, wash my face or brush my teeth,” said Shi, 39, who moved into the Gaotie Wellness City complex in May.

“I want this to be finished as soon as possible, so my elderly parents have somewhere to spend their final years… I have no money now, I’ve lost my family property and all that’s left is this unfinished building.”

Shi and a few dozen desperate home buyers live in the block in Tongchuan city as part of a nationwide campaign to pressure authorities to address so-called “rotting” or unfinished homes that have become more common during a years-long property slump that has bankrupted many developers and left others massively indebted.

There remains little sign of reprieve, with UBS predicting property sales and construction will stabilise at only 50-60% of the peak reached in 2020-21 partly due to population decline and slowing urbanisation.


Shi bought the flat in 2015 for 276,000 yuan ($38,000), two years after the developer, Tongchuan New District Qianjinfang Real Estate, began construction on the sprawling 12-block site, advertised as a high-end complex with “CEO-level service”.

Since 2015, construction repeatedly stalled but flats continued to be sold until 2020, residents say. The names of the developer and project changed several times, according to multiple housing contracts seen by Reuters.

Buyers have organised numerous protests at the city government since 2019. Tongchuan officials said in 2020 that a committee was established to resolve the issue, buyers said, but construction did not resume.

When Reuters visited earlier this week, around 60 home buyers gathered on site to protest government inaction, holding up their housing contracts while shouting: “We want our homes!”

The developer could not be contacted for comment. Tongchuan city government and China’s housing ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


Many of Shi’s neighbours are retirees who had bought apartments for their unmarried sons, or labourers who cannot afford to rent elsewhere.

To enter the complex, residents pick their way through an overgrown field, past abandoned construction machinery to a hole in the wall.

Inside, solar-powered lamps illuminate bare concrete walls and floors caked with layers of dust and gravel. Residents cook in a first-floor communal kitchen with a single gas burner, and the communal toilet is in a makeshift metal shed.

In the communal living area, the phrases “strength in numbers” and “live in a new home soon” are scrawled on the windows.

“My life savings were spent here. My son is still unmarried. I’m already 60, after a few years I won’t be able to climb so many stairs,” said a resident and former coal miner surnamed Gao who paid 240,000 yuan for a flat in 2018.

Since the property debt crisis began in 2021, thousands of homeowners have faced similar situations nationwide as smaller developers face liquidity issues and industry giants like Country Garden narrowly avoided default.

“You cannot rely on these houses. Look at how they turned out now, and how it has destroyed my family,” said home buyer Qi Xiaoxia, 65.

“My son is now 36. I borrowed money from all my relatives and friends to pay for the house. These past few years, we’ve tightened our belts to repay… but we still have no house and my son has no wife.”

(Reporting by Laurie Chen and Xiaoyu Yin; Editing by Lincoln Feast)