A Tragedy of the Commons: Property Rights Issues in Shanghai Historic Residences

35 Pages Posted: 5 Mar 2010 Last revised: 31 Mar 2010

See all articles by Amy L. Sommers

Amy L. Sommers

Squire, Sanders & Dempsey

Kara Phillips

Seattle University Law Library


This article explores the tensions between China’s newly privatized model of urban housing ownership and its socialist foundations. Through a combination of interviews and local research, the authors investigate the evolution of property ownership in Shanghai’s architecturally-distinctive stock of historic housing, encompassing various architectural periods and styles (including leading examples of Art Deco), which have gone through periods of private ownership (pre-1949), gradual socialization (1949-1965), militant squatting and occupation (1966-1976), and now privatization (1977 to current). Originally single-family residences, many were gerrymandered into multi-family units, in which the original owner/resident was relegated a small portion of space, and the remainder divided (by governmental assignment or squatting) among other residents. Now that land values in Shanghai have risen, there is increased interest in selling or renovating these houses (which are located in key sites in central Shanghai) or redeveloping the sites. However, the rights to develop or transfer these properties remain complicated due to ongoing issues regarding the rights of the original owners versus later residents/squatters. In the face of this impasse, a dynamic known as “the tragedy of the commons” has developed in which none of the parties has assumed responsibility for maintaining and improving the buildings or their common areas. As these formerly majestic pre-1949 residences increasingly fall into disrepair, they become vulnerable to demolition and replacement by shiny, new complexes. Unfortunately, if events follow this path, Shanghai will lose a key part of its architectural character and flavor.

Keywords: China, property, real estate, Shanghai, socialization, privatization, architectural preservation

Suggested Citation

Sommers, Amy L. and Phillips, Kara L., A Tragedy of the Commons: Property Rights Issues in Shanghai Historic Residences. Penn State International Law Review, Vol. 28, 2010; Seattle University School of Law Research Paper No. 10:06. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1564413

Amy L. Sommers (Contact Author)

Squire, Sanders & Dempsey ( email )

Suite 1207, 12th Floor, Shanghai Kerry Centre
1515 Nanjing Road West
Shanghai 200040, People's Republic of
+86.21.6103.6308 (Phone)

Kara L. Phillips

Seattle University Law Library ( email )

901 12th Avenue, Sullivan Hall
P.O. Box 222000
Seattle, WA n/a 98122-1090
United States

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