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The Tenement Nightmares Of Beijing
Summary:A new citywide directive explicitly specifies minimum per capita living space and forbids kitchens, bathrooms, balconies and basement storage areas from being rented out as bedrooms.

Photo: A student apartment in Beijing
Source: Beijing News

By Shen Nianzu (沈念祖) and trainee journalists Chen Zhe (陈哲) and Wang Xuewei (王雪薇)
Issue 629, July 22, 2013
News, page 1
Translated by Laura Lim
Original article: [Chinese]

Wang Mengyun (王梦芸) seems satisfied with her new bedroom, even if it's less than seven square meters and originally served as a kitchen. "This is the biggest room I've had in the four years I've lived in Beijing," she says. "And it only costs me 950 yuan ($150) a month."

Peng, the head tenant who sublets the room to Meng Yun, notes the rising prices of rentals. Any bedroom with a window is always more than 1,000 yuan. "A kitchen usually has three walls and a window, so many people would rush to grab it," he notes.

Meng Yun is one of the people taking part in the ongoing massive migration to China's major cities, whose many difficulties include finding a decent place to live.

Beijing authorities have attempted to institute new laws to deal with the housing needs of the city's seven million migrants, who are increasingly forced to live in tiny spaces, typically partitioned pieces of shared apartments and rooms.

Meng Yun, who arrived in the capital after graduating from a college in her native Henan Province in 2009, currently earns 2,500 yuan ($408) a month as a clerk at a wine importing business, but is always uncertain about having decent place to stay.

A new citywide directive explicitly specifies minimum per capita living space and forbids kitchens, bathrooms, balconies and basement storage areas from being rented out as bedrooms, so Meng Yun is very anxious that she may be forced to move for the fifth time.

Eviction Without Warning

Meng Yun's last move was also related to Beijing's group rental housing rectification campaign.

Meng was living in the Baihuan Residential complex (百环家园) which is close to the Shuangjing subway station, just one stop away from Beijing's central business district and home to many white-collar workers. It was also the optimal solution for

Meng Yun, who had just been forced to move out of a basement a year earlier because of a new regulation. Through a black-market intermediary, she rented a room of five square meters without a window for 650 yuan ($106). The 120 square meter apartment was divided into 13 tiny spaces separated by thin clapboard partitions — 23 people squeezed inside this space.

"Whether you wanted to brush your teeth or take a shower, you had to line up," Meng Yun recalls.

"At night, you would hear absolutely every movement in the next room."

Three sides of her bed were close against the clapboard, and after putting in one small wardrobe and a desk, there was no space for a chair.

Then in March 2012, just after she'd paid the rent for the following three months, Beijing launched a crackdown on illegal group-renting in the area.

"At that time, just the Baihuan residential complex alone accounted for more than half of the Jingsong Neighborhood Committee (劲松街道) cases of public disorder," says Ma Xiaoyong (马晓勇), media director of Jingsong's neighborhood office.

"I remember a place that set the record. Ninety square meters of space stacked with 26 bunk beds and 52 people."

Meng Yun ignored the information about the crackdown thinking it was just another propaganda stunt, until authorities started cutting off the electricity and dismantling the clapboard apartments.  All of a sudden the hawkers for group rentals who had been standing at every street corner disappeared from Baihuan.

According to Jingsong's neighborhood office, this action cleaned out more than 400 group rental apartments. But after just a month, group renting resurfaced, except "the size of the space separated with clapboards increased a little and so did the rent," says Meng Yun, who lost her deposit but got back two months of the rent she had paid before the crackdown.

"Although rents have gone up, Baihuan is still relatively cheap. Besides, my salary has increased, otherwise I can't even afford to live in a kitchen."

Investment Rackets

The fruit of the "affordable housing" (经济适用房) plan, the Baihuan Residential complex was built in 2000 with the average apartment having a floor space of  120 square meters.

"Thanks to the relatively generous surface area, most of these apartments were bought as investment properties," Ma Xiaoyong told the Economic Observer. "Many owners didn't even take a look at the house before handing it on to the rental agencies. One of the major reasons why there are so many clapboard rooms is because these apartments are big."

Head tenants such as Peng are called house worms (房虫) — people who originally rented the apartment then separated them into densely reallocated rooms to sublet. A head tenant can rent an entire apartment for betweem 7,000 and 8,000 yuan ($1,141 to $1,305) a month. He or she can then separate the surface into multiple tiny rooms or stack it with bunk beds to sublet for a total rental of around 15,000 to 20,000 yuan ($2450 to $3,260), according to Xiaoyong.

I also visited a flat with two bedrooms and two living rooms. The two bedrooms had three bunk beds each while the whole house, less than 110 square meters, had 13 bunk beds and 26 people, with only one bathroom and toilet. The average rent per bed was 550 yuan ($90).

"We generally don't like this group bed renting, which has a high turnover of tenants and is difficult to manage, but there is a certain market due to the low prices," said an employee at one rental agency.

Meng Yun's current home is a two room apartment with a living room. Now it's separated into six units, occupied by 13 people. Because she lives in the kitchen, all the other sub-tenants end up cooking in the tiny walkway of the flat.
The half-meter-wide corridor is scattered with piles of plates and kitchenware. "When it's dinner time, all the smells mix together. The clothes hanging in the hallway naturally smell of the oil," said Meng Yun.  

Still, she counts herself lucky to have her "kitchen-bedroom".
"It's at least got water and a window."

As to whether the gas pipe in the room presents a potential risk, she says, "You pay for what you can afford. If the worst occurs, that's also just back luck."

Links and Sources
The Economic Observer: Video: Beijing\'s "Sleeping" Satellites
The Economic Observer: Hard Living in Beijing
The Economic Observer: Behind Beijing’s Runaway Home Rental Prices
Shanghai Daily: Beijing Restricts Group Housing Rentals
Sohu: Gallery of Beijing "Group Rental" Apartments

News in English via World Crunch (link)


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