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Living Spaces Don’t Come Easy in Beijing

Standing next to the remains of their old house in the south of Beijing, Li Xing’s memories flooded back. She loved playing with the childhood friends and climbing the pomegranate tree in the small alleyway when she was a little girl.

“I didn’t recognize our house when I passed by a month ago,” says Li’s mother, Ma Guizhen, a Beijing native. The neighborhood, next to the west gate of the Temple of Heaven, has been mostly bulldozed and a wall has been built to make the area look tidy during the Olympics.

Their old house, half demolished, is now hidden from the road. Outside, it’s all greenery and flowers. “I heard that the whole neighborhood will be made into a vast green area,” says Ma.

Putting her feet on a piece of stone about the size of a large coffee table, Ma recalls, “This must be our kitchen,” which also functioned as a bathroom for the family, where a curtain was put up when someone was washing.

The kitchen was next to one bedroom where Li Xing slept with her mother from age 6 to 17. One meter across was an extension Li’s father built to keep his motorcycle. Later it became his bedroom when the other bedroom became too small for the three of them.

“There was no privacy living in the hutong. You could hear everything through the thin walls,” says Li, who now works for a foreign embassy in Beijing.

The family’s second home, in which they lived for nine years from the mid 1980s, covered just 9.7 square meters in a hutong, a traditional Beijing alleyway.

“The house looks rather small to me now,” says Li. “But in my memory, it was quite big.”

When new China was founded in 1949, the country entered an era of the planned economy. Under this system, there was no "market" for consumer goods, including houses. All houses were uniformly built by the government and rented to residents through their work units at a nominal price. Housing, heavily subsidized by the government, was a social benefit rather than a commodity.

However, people could exchange their houses through government agencies, just like Li’s family did. They found their hutong house through a housing exchange agency, when they were looking for a place closer to where Li’s father worked.

The hutong house was big improvement from the family’s first home in a courtyard, where three families lived in seven rooms.

Ma, and her family of six lived together in a house of just 16 square meters before she went to the countryside in Heilongjiang, northeast China, as a teenager to serve the construction forces during the Cultural Revolution.

Ma returned to Beijing with her husband Li Minghai in 1978. The newlyweds moved a bed into the 1.5-square-meter kitchen, and that’s where their life together began in Beijing.

“I was pretty satisfied that I could finally sleep on a bed,” says Ma, an upbeat woman in her 50s. She recalls sleeping on plastic wheat bags in Heilongjiang, where she lived for nine years.

In the courtyard, the residents shared communal toilets and water facilities. There was no heating in the winter.

When Ma fell pregnant, her mother went to great pains to find the couple their own home. Eventually the housing administration agreed allocate one more room for the family as long as they found a suitable piece of land where the room could be built. It was the back of a public toilet in the neighborhood.

The couple moved in with new furniture: two closets, a desk and a sewing machine.

As the baby grew, Ma’s concern over housing grew, too. “Xing was growing very fast and our room was not big enough,” recalls Ma.

The shortage of housing attracted the attention of the central government. In April 1978, Deng Xiaoping suggested that housing reform be put on the agenda. In 1979, China experimented at selling public housing at prices comparable to construction costs. In the years to follow, housing reform towards the goal of a commodity market slowly proceeded.

However, the Chinese were used to depending on the government to provide accommodation and the vast majority did not have enough money to buy a home. Banks, for their part, were not yet extending home loans to individuals.

“Our situation was not the worst. There were families with several generations squeezed into one room,” Ma says.

Li has fond memories of the life in the courtyard house, where her father built a swing from the roof beam.

“I used to eat on the swing, a lot of fun,” she says. She recalls an old locust tree in the courtyard. When it blossomed, the children in the courtyard would climb up and eat the flowers.

The family’s search for better housing continued as China’s economy boomed. In 1997, Li’s father found another house for exchange. This time bigger and brighter, 27 square meters with two rooms. “We’d never lived in a house more than 10 square meters, so that was really big. I really felt that life was getting better and better,” Ma recalls.

Just when she thought it could not get any better, fortune smiled on the family. Their neighborhood was going to be demolished to make way for new apartment buildings and they only needed to pay a third of the market price to buy the new apartment as compensation from the developer.

China’s housing reform was progressing very slow until real change came in 1994, when the government called for “housing accumulation funds" to be established, a reserve fund to which employees and their employers both contributed. The fund usually accounts for 8 to 10 percent of a worker's monthly salary.

In 1998, China abandoned the welfare housing. Since then, individuals have been encouraged to buy homes on the open market instead of waiting for their employers to provide them with accommodation and many state-owned banks started to lend to home buyers.

In 2003, Li’s family finally moved into the new apartment, their own three-bedroom, 117-square-meter apartment, for which they paid 120,000 yuan.

“I felt like walking so far to get from one room to another,” Li recalls, .

The family kept the decoration to a minimum: it was already too good to be true.

China’s housing market has grown so fast and so has the price. “The apartment is worth more than 2 million yuan now. We were really lucky,” Ma says contentedly.

Lucky indeed.

Many families moved to the city outskirts after their houses were demolished because they could not afford to buy a home in the city even with compensation from developers.

Since Beijing won the bid to host the 29th Olympic Games, property prices in the capital have soared to new high, partly because of speculative buying by domestic and overseas investors.

The government launched a new slew of measures to cool down the market beginning in 2005. They included raising mortgage rates for individual home buyers, ensuring the supply of medium and small sized apartments, curbing speculative buying, and levying taxes on individual property sales made within two years of purchase.

Some young people, with the help of their families to pay for the down payment of mortgages, have become “housing slaves” to the mortgages on their apartments because of the high property price.

But the government maintains that housing reform has generally improved living conditions. According to statistics from the Ministry of Construction, the average home area for each urban dweller rose from 6.7 square meters in 1978 to 27 square meters in 2006.

However, the economic boom also widened the gap between rich and poor. Ten million low-income families still live in homes of less than 10 square meters per capita.

The government plans to earmark 6.8 billion yuan (951 million U.S. dollars) in 2008 to build low-rent houses for the urban poor.

Li Xing, who married this year, still lives in a rented apartment with her husband. “The housing price is too high,” she says, admitting that even with a monthly income of almost more than 20,000 yuan, they still feel that it’s too expensive to buy an apartment in downtown Beijing.

Her mother says, “My only wish now is to buy an apartment for my daughter, even just one bedroom and one living room. But with the current property prices, it seems impossible.”

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