HONG KONG • Chinese President Xi Jinping's mantra that homes should be for living in is falling on deaf ears, with tens of millions of apartments and houses standing empty across the country.
Soon-to-be-published research will show roughly 22 per cent of China's urban housing stock is unoccupied, according to Professor Gan Li of Chengdu's Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, who runs the nationwide study. That adds up to more than 50 million empty homes, he said.
The nightmare scenario for policymakers is that owners of unoccupied dwellings rush to sell if cracks start appearing in the property market, causing prices to spiral downwards.
The latest data, from a survey last year, also suggests Beijing's efforts to curb property speculation - considered by leaders to be a key threat to financial and social stability - are coming up short.
"There's no other single country with such a high vacancy rate," said Prof Gan. "Should any crack emerge in the property market, the homes to be offloaded will hit China like a flood."
One solution the government could use is property or vacancy taxes to try to counter the issue, but neither appears imminent and some researchers, including Prof Gan, say what actually counts as vacant could be tricky to determine.
Thousands of researchers fanned out across 363 counties last year as part of the China Household Finance Survey, which Prof Gan runs at the university.
The vacancy rate, which excludes homes yet to be sold by developers, was little changed from a 2013 reading of 22.4 per cent, he said by phone, adding that he was finalising the data for release.
The 2013 study showed 49 million vacant homes, and Prof Gan puts that number now at "definitely more than 50 million units".
Holiday homes and the empty dwellings of migrants seeking work elsewhere account for some of the deserted properties, but purchases for investment are a key factor keeping the vacancy rate high, according to Prof Gan. That is despite curbs across the country meant to discourage buying of multiple dwellings.
There is an economic cost to vacancies too because they are a drag on supply, which puts upward pressure on prices and crowds young buyers out of the market, according to Mr Kaiji Chen, who co-authored a Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis working paper called The Great Housing Boom Of China.
One example is a villa on the outskirts of Shanghai that 27-year-old Natalie Feng's parents bought for her. The two-storey residence was meant to be a weekend escape for the family of three. In reality, it is empty most of the time, and Ms Feng says it is too much trouble to rent it out.
"For every weekend we spend there, we need to drive for an hour first, and clean up for half a day," she said.
She joked that she sometimes wishes her parents had not bought it for her. That is because any apartment she buys now would count as a second home, which means she would have to make a bigger down payment. \