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China’s “nail houses” cause construction delays and strange twists in roads

Reuters/China Stringer Network
A family of seven lived in a three-story building without electricity or water, in the middle of a street.
By Gwynn Guilford, Roberto A. Ferdman
ChinaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Even as its economy slows, China’s investment in real estate and infrastructure has lost little steam. A common problem for developers, though, is that especially in and around major cities plum land parcels are often already occupied. The solution? Evict the residents. Sometimes developers or local governments compensate or relocate those they kick out, usually offering less than the original property’s value. Sometimes they don’t.

But occasionally this combo of force and pay-out doesn’t work. The result is what is popularly called “nail houses” or “nail households,” referring both to their residents’ stubbornness and how they protrude on the skyline of already razed land.

The term’s common use dates back to a 2007 incident in Chongqing, when a kung-fu master and his charismatic wife became national heroes for refusing to leave land zoned for a new shopping mall. But nail houses have an enduring popularity in the Chinese media. That’s probably because the social theme they embody—underdogs standing up to power and money—has only gained in importance as government cronyism widens the gap between rich and everyone else.

However inspiring their stories may be, most nail houses eventually suffer the same fate: demolition, as either the owners back down or their homes are illegally bulldozed.

Here’s a look at some nail households from 2007 to the present.

Reuters/Stringer Shanghai
Yang Wu and Wu Ping, the couple who refused to leave an area zoned for a shopping mall, inspired others in China to defy developers. This photo from 2007 shows their home stands as an island surrounded by a construction site up to 10 meters deep.
Reuters/Paul Yeung
That same year, in the central busines district of Shenzhen, a couple refused to sell their villa for the 6,500 yuan ($840) offered, and instead demanded 18,000 yuan ($2,327).
Reuters/Joe Tan
And that fall, in Guangzhou, the capital of China’s Guangdong province, a single house stood defiant in the center of a construction site of a new apartment zone.
Reuters/Sean Yong
The following year, the owners of a house on the outskirts of Nanjing in China’s Jiangsu province insisted that they receive more money for their home, after local authorities announced the land would be used for a wetlands project.
Reuters/China Daily Information Corp
In 2009, another nailhouse stood defiant in China’s Chongqing Municipality. Again, the owners demanded better compensation before they allowed their home to be demolished in favor of a new apartment zone.
Reuters/China Daily International Corp
In late 2012, an elderly couple refused to sign an agreement to allow their house to be demolished. Their home was the only building left standing on a paved road through their village.
Reuters/China Stringer Network
This house is currently diverting car traffic in Xi’an; the owners, a family of seven, refuse to move, opting instead to live without electricity or water.

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