I spent a night in one of the empty apartments in Malaysia's $100 billion ghost town, and I can see why very few people want to live there

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I spent a night in one of the empty apartments in Malaysia's $100 billion ghost town, and I can see why very few people want to live there
  • Forest City, a luxury estate in Malaysia, has thousands of empty apartments.
  • I spent a night in one of these apartments and found they weren't as luxurious as they were branded to be.

Forest City is a luxury development in southern Malaysia. China's largest developer, Country Garden, spent $100 billion building the estate.

I first visited Forest City in May 2022, and it was a ghost town. I found towering apartment buildings spread across four square miles. A white-sand beach overlooked the Johor Strait, where I could see the silhouette of industrial plants in western Singapore. At night, the windows of hundreds of rows of apartments stayed dark. There were barely any cars on the road and only a handful of people at the beach.

Forest City projects that some 700,000 people will live in the estate in the next six years. For now, it says there are only 9,000 residents.

In 2022, a security guard at a local condominium told me 20 people lived in the complex. This left me curious about what it would be like to spend a night in one of these apartments.

In March, eight years into Forest City's development, I returned to the estate.

I booked a homestay at a condominium unit for 70 Singapore dollars, or $52, through a property manager. Dozens of similar units are listed on Airbnb for as little as $38 a night. The unit's owner, who is based in China, declined to comment on this story, citing privacy reasons.

Take a look inside one of the thousands of vacant apartments in Forest City.

Country Garden did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Business Insider.

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Forest City's apartment complexes are marketed as high-end.

Forest City's apartment complexes are marketed as high-end.
Forest City's condominiums are known for their green, foliage-covered exterior.Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

I arrived in Forest City on a Friday afternoon. A row of businesses — from a furniture store to a hotpot restaurant — lined the road to the condominium where I stayed the night. One business owner, who declined to be named, said they opened their shop in October.

It was significantly busier than when I had first visited two years earlier. There was barely anyone around then, but now, a few dozen people were walking the streets and patronizing the shops.

I had high expectations for the condo, as Forest City had long branded its properties as upscale. In a July press release, Forest City said it offers "luxury high-rise waterfront apartments."

According to the press release, unit prices in Forest City start at 510,000 Malaysian ringgit, or $108,000. It's expensive for Johor, the Malaysian state where Forest City is located.

Muhammad Najib Razali, a professor of real estate at Malaysia Technology University, told me properties in Johor usually sell below 300,000 ringgit — the price considered affordable among the state's middle-income households.

Locals are not the target market for these upscale condos. Some 98% of units sold in Forest City were purchased by foreign buyers, according to data cited in a 2017 paper by Ong Kian Ming, a Fullbright scholar and Malaysia's Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industry. In June 2017, Country Garden told Bloomberg it had sold 16,000 units.

The lobby didn't make a strong first impression.

The lobby didn't make a strong first impression.
The elevator at an apartment complex in Forest City.Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

The complex looked pristine from the outside, with each 39-story building covered in greenery. But when I entered the lobby, it was far less manicured.

The elevators were plastered with peeling wallpaper with Forest City's logo and a phrase in Chinese and English that read: "Going home is the beginning of a new life."

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Most of the apartments on my floor looked empty.

Most of the apartments on my floor looked empty.
The corridor in one of the condominiums in Forest City.Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

My unit for the night was on the seventh floor. There were around 20 units on the floor. Each of the units had a window that faced the hallway. I peered into them and could see that most of the units were either sparsely furnished or outright unfurnished.

Two of the units were used by the condo's staff — I spotted several men in uniforms leaving and entering the room — with a few pairs of shoes left outside the door.

In 2022, a Forest City representative told me more than 20,000 residential units had been sold. Now, it appeared that many of these units were vacant.

A resident at another apartment complex in Forest City told me they were the only people living on their floor. They added that most other floors in the building also only had one resident.

One reason so many units are empty is because many people bought them as investment properties, Najib said.

"Some buyers thought that Forest City, in terms of the rental market, would be much easier to see return," he said.

One local business owner, who declined to be named, told me she also worked as a property agent in Forest City and currently had 50 units available for rent.

According to units listed on the property site iProperty, a three-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment at the condo costs as little as 1,100 ringgit, or $235, to rent per month. In comparison, renting a similar unit at Danga Bay — Country Garden's first venture in Malaysia just 20 miles from Forest City — costs over 2,300 ringgit a month.

The unit looked like it hadn't been lived in. It had an aesthetic similar to an Ikea showroom.

The unit looked like it hadn't been lived in. It had an aesthetic similar to an Ikea showroom.
Inside an apartment in one of the condominiums in Forest City.Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

The unit wasn't anything special. It had a simple, three-person couch, a small wooden coffee table, and no TV.

The apartment measured 635 square feet and had a master bedroom, two smaller rooms, and one common bathroom. There was also a compact kitchen with two stoves near the entrance.

According to the property website EdgeProp, the average house in Johor is nearly double the size of this unit, at around 1,264 square feet.

Koh Sin Yee, an adjunct senior research fellow with Monash University Malaysia, told me locals in Johor often prefer to purchase landed properties rather than high-rise apartments. She said this deters many locals — even those who can afford it — from buying a house and living in Forest City.

According to data referenced in Ong's 2017 paper, at the time, only 78 out of the 5,344 units sold in Forest City were sold to Malaysians.

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The master bedroom was only furnished with a double bed.

The master bedroom was only furnished with a double bed.
The master bedroom in one of the apartments in the condominium.Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

Unlike the other two bedrooms, the master bedroom had natural light streaming in from a large window. One of the common rooms faced the hallway, and when the blinds were opened, I could see straight into the hallway. At night, it felt eerie, as I could hear every little noise from the outside, from the rustling of leaves to insects chirping.

The common rooms were furnished with nothing but a single bed. I could feel the plastic still wrapped around the mattresses when I lay down.

While the rest of the unit looked new, the bathroom was worse for the wear.

While the rest of the unit looked new, the bathroom was worse for the wear.
The lone bathroom in the apartment.Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

Dirt and dead moths had piled up in the shower.

Showering was uncomfortable. The drain was clogged up, so I ended up ankle-deep in water.

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The best part of the unit was the balcony, which had views of the coastal villas and the Johor Strait.

The best part of the unit was the balcony, which had views of the coastal villas and the Johor Strait.
View of the coastal villas from an apartment unit in Forest City.Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

On its website, Forest City marketed these villas as a "peaceful retreat or a luxurious vacation home." These villas are larger than the apartments, with a living area between 753 square feet and 1,862 square feet. A total of 482 villas are set to be completed by 2026.

The villas looked like modern townhouses. Each villa had a rooftop and garage. Forest City hasn't announced how much these villas will cost.

While the condo was massive, I spotted only a handful of residents using its facilities.

While the condo was massive, I spotted only a handful of residents using its facilities.
The outdoor pool in one of the condominiums in Forest City.Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

Outside, there was a swimming pool, several outdoor gyms, and a playground.

There was no one at the pool in the morning. The Jacuzzi was full of cloudy-looking water.

I spotted a total of three residents, one of whom was blasting a song in Chinese from her phone and exercising on one of the tai chi spinners at the outdoor gym.

It looked like an average residential neighborhood in Singapore — with its endless blocks of public housing and the ubiquitous sight of plants and trees — but without the people.

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There was one place that didn't feel dead: the row of shops just outside the condo.

There was one place that didn't feel dead: the row of shops just outside the condo.
A Chinese restaurant at a condominium in Forest City.Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

I headed for a meal at one of several Chinese restaurants just outside the condo. During my first visit, most of these stores were vacant. But now, it was where I found the most signs of life.

The moment I stepped into the restaurant, I was transported to China. Chinese pop music blared from the speakers as cigarette smoke wafted into the air.

Nearly everyone inside only spoke Chinese. Despite speaking Malay, the national language, I had to resort to pointing at items on the menu to order.

The area had become an enclave of sorts: The other stores nearby were also Chinese restaurants or convenience stores that sold household goods from China. There, people told me they were from the mainland, too, and only spoke Chinese.

"A certain demographic of Chinese people may prefer this kind of lifestyle in Malaysia," Koh said, adding that Forest City offers a lower cost of living than major cities in China and is designed in a way that's familiar to where Chinese residents may have lived back home.