Below Beijing’s Streets, Hidden Underground Apartments House 1 Million Residents

With over 21 million residents in Beijing, competition for housing is extremely high. Even the smallest apartments can cost a fortune, prompting nearly 1 million city residents to look elsewhere for affordable housing – one option? Underground.

Below the city’s busy streets, storage basements and bomb shelters are increasingly being turned into apartments. Annette Kim, a professor at the University of Southern California, spent the last year studying this active market, which has been illegal since housing laws changed in 2010.

Yet, according to her research, “Part of why there’s so much underground space is because it’s the official building code to continue to build bomb shelters and basements.”

These apartments can go as far as three stories below ground, and often have communal bathrooms, along with shared kitchens. Although cramped and windowless, it is the most affordable option for urban-dwellers, with rent costing roughly $70 per month.

For the most part, underground residents are mostly young migrants – waitresses, store clerks, tech workers, etc. – who traveled to the city from the countryside in order to find work. But living underground is stigmatized, and there is often a sense of shame associated with it. Little contact is made between those who live above ground and those who live below, and property owners can also be strict about whom they let in.

As such, it is rare to ever see underground residents in their homes. However, Beijing-based photographer, Chi Yin Sim, managed to capture a few photos in her series China’s “Rat Tribe.” 

According to Sim, the underground housing market is an entirely different “universe beneath our feet.”

Her photos depict the conditions of the rooms – some are only big enough to hold a bed, with barely any space to move around. The dark and damp atmosphere can also cause personal belongings to grow mold. In fact, air ventilation, humidity and the lack of sunlight is often the biggest complaint for residents.

For many, however, the close living quarters are not too much of an issue. Beijing, in general, is overcrowded – so although you can hear people cooking or chatting in the next room, most are just happy to have a safe place to rest.

Check out the stunning photos here.