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Do Bomb Shelters Still Exist?

Living space is at a premium in Beijing, and the cost of even a tiny apartment can be out of reach for many of the city’s 21 million residents, who need or want to live near the city center but cannot afford the rent. For years, the answer for many -- some estimate the number to be as high as one million people -- has been to find shelter under the city’s bustling streets, where bomb shelters and storage basements have become affordable residences.

More than 10,000 concrete bunkers were built below Beijing more than 40 years ago as part of Mao Zedong’s Cold War defense strategy. Subterranean residents, dubbed the “rat tribe” by media outlets, live in windowless concrete rooms that rent for about $70 USD a month, about a third of the price charged above ground.

Beijing's downwardly mobile:

  • In 2010, Beijing announced that residential use of underground spaces would be illegal by the end of 2012. That deadline was later extended to 2017.

  • Underground apartments can extend one to three stories below ground. Residents have communal bathrooms and shared kitchens. The tiny rooms have just enough space for a bed.

  • “They're all the service people in the city,” explains Annette Kim, a professor at the University of Southern California who studied Beijing’s underground housing in 2013. “They're your waitresses, store clerks, interior designers, tech workers, who just can't afford a place in the city.”

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