Taichung, Taiwan – Around a tiled square on the outskirts of the Chinese city of Nanjing, a cluster of apartment buildings rise like concrete columns towards a grey sky.
At first glance, the structures look like a testament to China’s awe-inspiring construction boom, which saw the country use more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the United States did throughout the entire 20th century.
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But upon closer examination, the development is more like a scene out of a post-apocalyptic story than a symbol of grandeur.
There is no light in any of the buildings and most of them lack doors or windows.
An eerie silence lies over the compound, which is strewn with disassembled equipment and construction materials, broken occasionally only by the sound of a tarp flapping lazily about on top of a stack of iron rods.
There are no residents in sight.
“The workers stopped building in 2019,” Ji Zhang, a 61-year-old resident who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym, told Al Jazeera. “They say it was because the developer ran out of money.”
Over a grainy video call, Ji gestures towards one of the unfinished high-rises, where she and her husband purchased a sixth-floor apartment in 2017.
Ji felt like they were buying into a dream when they poured most of their life savings into a 60 percent down payment for the property.
“It was all just an old village back then, but when the sales agents showed us the plans for the area, I saw how it could give my husband and me the retirement we were looking for,” Ji said.
The compound promised a range of modern amenities, proximity to an array of shopping options and access to far better medical facilities than the urban village outside Nanjing where Ji and her husband had been living.
Most importantly, the apartment offered the chance for Ji and her husband to live much closer to their daughter and two grandchildren in Nanjing.
“But we haven’t had a chance to enjoy any of that,” Ji said with tears in her eyes.
But with their apartment still unfinished five years after their purchase, Ji’s retirement dream lies in tatters.
“And this is not just happening to us,” Ji said, wiping away her tears. “It is unfortunately happening all over China.”
Across China, from Guilin in southern China to Dalian in the north, countless home buyers have emptied their life savings into homes that never materialised.
So-called “rotten-tail buildings”, as they are known in Chinese, dot the outskirts of cities and central locations alike. In Nanjing, a hotel, an office building, an art museum and even a castle have remained unfinished for years.
In a suburb of the northeastern city of Shenyang, a planned neighbourhood of about 260 European-styled villas, was abandoned by the developer only two years after construction began.
Today, the land is occupied by local farmers who grow crops on the paths through the neighbourhood and rear cattle in enclosures between the villas.
Thousands of completed homes also lie empty across the country within so-called ghost cities.
In 2017, an estimated 65 million units – a fifth of all homes in China – lay vacant.
In September, He Keng, a former deputy head of the country’s statistics bureau, said that there were probably more vacant homes than could be filled by the country’s 1.4 billion people.
Local officials have made various efforts to deal with the glut, from removing restrictions on home purchases to offering buyers incentives such as new cars, smartphones and gold bars.
But such measures only scratch the surface of a much larger problem, according to analysts.
“This is a massive property crisis centring around a housing bubble that has been building up for many years,” Thomas Rao, a risk analyst at a major Chinese bank in Shanghai, told Al Jazeera.
During the late 2000s, entire “ghost” cities and neighbourhoods began to emerge across China as a credit-fuelled building boom bumped up against lacklustre demand.
“This has been a problem, particularly in medium-sized cities and smaller cities where supply and demand has been especially skewed,” Yang Jiang, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, told Al Jazeera.
The mismatch between supply and demand has been attributed to local governments becoming dependent on land sales to balance their budgets and developers becoming dependent on buying the land, developing properties on it and selling those properties to turn a profit.
“It all ran on the expectation that demand and property prices would continue to increase,” Jiang said.
For years, the bet paid off.
Between 2004 and 2014, housing prices doubled across the country. Returns from some properties were so high that even companies with no experience in real estate invested in the sector.
With so much capital thrown at the market, both local governments and major developers were able to borrow heavily from banks in order to further fuel land sales and property construction.
On the back of the boom, the real estate sector and related industries surged to an estimated 30 percent of China’s gross domestic product (GDP).
As Beijing moved to rein in excessive borrowing with its “three red lines” regulations, developers struggled to meet their debt obligations.
In late 2020, China’s second-largest developer Evergrande Group defaulted, and in August this year, the company filed for bankruptcy protection in the US. That same month, China’s largest developer, Country Garden, came to the brink of default.
“The government began to realise that there were problems in the sector and started to work towards deflating the housing bubble and rebalance the economy away from the strong dependency on the property sector,” Jiang said.
Evergrande sits on more than $300bn of debt – about the size of Finland’s GDP – while Country Garden sits on slightly less than $200bn, leading to fears that their collapse could threaten the Chinese economy as a whole.
“That is why we are seeing the officials working hard to prevent a spillover,” Jiang said.
The question of what is to become of developers’ many unfinished construction projects is unclear.
Many smaller developers that do not pose a systemic risk to the Chinese economy are teetering on the brink of collapse, leaving the fate of many projects in limbo.
Rao, the risk analyst, said he is not optimistic on behalf of the many people across China’s cities waiting for their homes to be finished.
“Some will have to wait years, others maybe indefinitely,” he said.
On the outskirts of Nanjing, Ji Zhang and other home buyers at her compound decided earlier this year that they were not willing to wait around indefinitely for their homes to be finished.
After several visits and calls to the local authorities got them nowhere, Ji and a group of fellow residents rented a truck and began moving furniture and living essentials into their unfinished apartments. None of the homes had yet been installed with air conditioning, heating, running water or electricity. Some did not even have doors or windows.
“We moved into empty shells, but we figured that if we help each other as a community, we can do it,” Ji said.
The residents set up toilet facilities and rubbish collection outside the compound, gathered in one of the buildings to cook together every evening, and took turns running errands and buying necessities for each other.
Across China, aggrieved buyers of unfinished homes have taken similar action.
In an unfinished compound outside the city of Xi’an in central China last year, homebuyers clashed with local police as they tried to break down barricades to get into their homes.
Ji and her neighbours’ decision to move into their unfinished apartments likewise caught the attention of the local authorities.
“Someone came from the local housing authority and told us to leave, and then someone working for the developer came and told us they would finish our homes if we agreed to pay the remaining apartment costs,” Ji said.
At that point, Ji and her husband had paid around 80 percent of the price of their apartment. A developer presented homebuyers on the outskirts of Xi’an with a similar offer. They agreed, but the promised resumption of construction only lasted a week.
“We told the local official and the developer that we weren’t leaving or paying any more money until they restart building again,” Ji said.
Ji and the other homebuyers in Nanjing have not heard from the developer or the local authorities since May.
Like most of the other buyers, Ji and her husband are no longer living at their unfinished property and today divide their time between their family home in the countryside and their daughter’s place in Nanjing.
“The bare building and the open spaces left our home very dusty, and my husband started to develop a bad cough,” Ji said.
Although dark clouds loom over China’s housing market and its debt-laden developers, Ji has not abandoned her dream.
“We are not giving up,” she said. “We want the apartments we were promised. We want the homes we paid for.”