In an effort to repurpose facilities and increase affordable housing availability, some Chinese cities have begun converting former COVID-19 quarantine centers into small apartment units. This innovative policy has garnered both interest and criticism across the country.
Eager Tenants Quickly Fill Vacant Quarantine Rooms
As China relaxes its strict “zero-COVID” policy from last year, cities are faced with empty quarantine facilities and excess capacity. At the same time, a lack of affordable housing has left many middle- and low-income residents struggling to find places to live in crowded metro areas.
To address both issues, local governments have turned vacant quarantine wards into tiny studio apartments which they offer for rent below market rates. In some cases, beds used by COVID patients just months ago have literally been converted into new quasi-public housing units.
While controversial, the apartments have found tenants almost immediately. Offering relatively modern amenities at rents around 30-50% below private housing, the converted quarantine rooms have drawn eager interest from single workers and young professionals.
Liu Wang, a 25-year old delivery driver, was one of the first to move into a 200 square foot studio in a converted quarantine hotel in Dali, Yunnan province. Paying ¥1500 ($210 USD) per month including utilities and internet, Liu could not find any regular housing close to his job for less than ¥2500.
I know some people think it feels weird to live here after this place was used for COVID patients. But for me and my budget this little studio is perfect,” Liu said. “The appliances are new, the building is secure, and I can walk to my job downtown. I’ll happily live in an ex-quarantine room to save $100 month on rent!
In Chengdu, all 544 available units in a converted quarantine center were leased within 5 days of listings being posted. Many other cities across China have had similar experiences – high demand for inexpensive post-quarantine housing has outpaced conversion and occupancy efforts.
Table 1: Example Post-Quarantine Studio Units
|250 sq ft
|100% (5 days)
|180 sq ft
|95% (3 weeks)
|220 sq ft
|65% (6 weeks)
With hundreds of millions of people in China’s workforce renting rather than owning housing, and far more demand than supply for affordable rentals in large cities, local governments seem to have found at least a small part of the solution from an unexpected source – former quarantine wards.
Lingering Infection Worries Still an Issue for Some
However, the idea of living in a former quarantine and isolation ward has not appealed to everyone. According to property managers, while economic factors have driven rapid leasing activity, between 15-35% of prospective tenants ultimately decide against moving into the converted units due to persistent concerns about infection and contamination.
This reluctance is impacting certain demographics in particular. Elderly residents still worried about COVID risks have shown very little interest. And families with children have shunned the small units in favor of regular apartments.
But for young single tenants, the units have remained attractive given their discount pricing. To try easing concerns, building owners have allowed new occupants to thoroughly clean rooms themselves before moving in. Many new residents have hired specialty disinfection companies to provide cleaning certifications as well.
However even intensive cleaning has not swayed worries for some skeptics. Ms. Yang, age 62, toured a converted quarantine center unit in Changsha after reading about the affordable rates. But upon seeing the facility she quickly changed her mind:
“Seeing the tiny space in person made me wonder how thoroughly it could be cleaned after housing infectious people,” she said after her visit. “Who knows if some virus could still be hiding in the ventilation or pipes. At my age I just wasn’t comfortable risking it, even if the price was attractive.”
For Wang Li, memories of her father passing away in a COVID isolation ward last year overshadowed financial considerations.
“My father died terrified and alone, cooped up in a little room just like the ones they’re now renting out,” Li explained. “When I saw the small converted unit it just brought back awful memories for me.”
The lingering stigma and fears highlight remaining tensions around China’s rapid unwinding of its stringent pandemic restrictions. And with affordability taking priority for many younger Chinese workers, shelters potentially still housing traces of coronavirus continue to morph into sought-after cost-effective housing.
A Temporary Fix or Permanent Addition of Housing Stock?
The speed with which quarantine facilities have been converted and occupied has raised questions around more permanent incorporation of these units into municipal housing stocks. What was originally viewed as a short term solution with temporary appeal may now become a standard option for budget housing in some cities.
In many cases the original facilities were designed and constructed rapidly at the peak of China’s pandemic lockdowns in 2020-2021. Features catered specifically to quarantine and infection control protocols. Floorplans emphasized isolation over livability and communal space was nonexistent. Units were built to require the least amount of materials, labor and financial investment possible under emergency conditions.
But now as local governments evaluate the cost of further conversions against options like subsidized traditional housing projects, the basic math for adding small studio units to urban housing ecosystems stands out.
Table 2: Comparative Costs for 250 sq ft Housing Unit Addition
|Convert Existing Quarantine Ward
|Construct New Affordable Housing
|Cost per Unit
|Time to Occupy
Favorable cost and speed factors provide compelling incentives for municipalities dealing with budget and timeline pressures. As some cities embrace ongoing quarantine center conversion efforts, debate continues around whether affordable housing goals justify permanent integration of these non-traditional dwellings into urban residential landscapes.
In Shanghai for example, a new plan approved in September will add an estimated 220,000 apartment units over the next 3 years converted from former hospitals and quarantine hotels. This policy remains highly controversial however given the unique rental conditions. To inhabit the 210-360 square foot spaces at discounted rates around ¥1600-¥2200 per month, tenants must agree to 48 hour move-out notices with no official tenant rights – essentially allowing the government to reclaim units at any time if needed again for future pandemic response efforts.
Opposition groups have published scathing criticism, blasting municipal leaders for normalizing second-class housing conditions they feel take advantage of the economically disadvantaged. But proponents argue the market has already shown the concept answers a proven demand, and flexible protections would continue keeping converted units available specifically for lower income residents rather than seeing them occupied by higher paying business tenants.
Only time will tell whether repurposed quarantine wards will persist as a creative addition of otherwise unavailable affordable housing stock, or fade as a temporary aberration born out of unique needs during China’s zero-COVID era.
Next Steps: Oversight and Integration with Broader Housing Initiatives
While market forces clearly show converted quarantine facilities helping to bridge major affordable housing gaps in China’s largest cities, further policy work remains to clarify appropriate oversight and incorporate these non-traditional dwellings into broader smart growth planning.
Specifically, municipalities will need addressing questions around intended permanency of converted housing within 5-10 year infrastructure forecasts, associated transit and public service capacity planning, clarifying public health and occupancy guidelines, and codifying reasonable tenant protections balanced against government reclamation rights.
Ideally converted quarantine housing could complement larger affordable development initiatives like lottery assigned units, subsidized rental targets included in new private developments, and funded construction of dedicated lower income projects. Integrating repurposed pandemic infrastructure into these longer term urban growth plans and budgets will determine whether discount post-quarantine studios become established fixtures helping cities provide livable accommodations accessible across income levels.
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