China Has a Plan for Its Housing Crisis. Here’s Why It’s Not Enough.

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A new approach by China’s top leaders is bold but pales against the problem: a vast number of empty apartments no one wants to buy.

China has a housing problem. A very big one. It has nearly four million apartments that no one wants to buy, a combined expanse of unwanted living space roughly the area of Philadelphia.

Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, and his deputies have called on the government to buy them.

The plan, announced last week, is the boldest move yet by Beijing to stop the tailspin of a housing crisis that threatens one of the world’s biggest economies. It was also not nearly enough.

China has a bigger problem lurking behind all those empty apartments: even more homes that developers already sold but have not finished building. By one conservative estimate, that figure is around 10 million apartments.

The scale of China’s real estate boom was breathtaking. The extent of its unrelenting bust, which began nearly four years ago, remains vast and unclear.

China’s leaders were already managing a slowdown after three decades of double-digit growth before the housing crisis created a downturn that is spiraling out of their control. Few experts believe that Beijing can transition to more sustainable growth without confronting all those empty apartments and the developers that overextended to build them. All told, trillions of dollars are owed to builders, painters, real estate agents, small companies and banks around the country.

After decades of promoting the biggest real estate boom the world has ever seen, and allowing it to become nearly one-third of China’s economic growth, Beijing stepped in suddenly in 2020 to cut off the easy money that fueled the expansion, setting off a chain of bankruptcies that shocked a nation of home buyers.

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