I first came to Beijing 15 years ago, when the city was much smaller and the rent much cheaper. For young arts students like myself, Beijing was a city of dreams, offering a fresh start to those of us unable to showcase our talents elsewhere in China.
Back then, most newcomers to the city weren’t picky about housing. Many of my peers slept in basements, but I used to rent an apartment in a residential complex. It wasn’t until I helped a former classmate to look for somewhere to live that I had my first glimpse of Beijing’s underground world.
The year was 2008, just before the city hosted the Olympic Games. The place we were looking at was a simple wooden shack located in an undeveloped area near Beijing’s eastern suburb of Xibahe. Inside the shack was a manhole cover, and down the manhole was a vast underground cavern with numerous cramped rooms. Each room measured between 4 and 6 square meters, just enough to fit a small bed and a little table. The corridor had a few rice cookers and other cooking utensils, but the landlord said residents weren’t allowed to use them or cook themselves. The rent ranged from 400 to 600 yuan per month (then $58 to $86).
My classmate didn’t like the place, so we continued our search in Tiantongyuan, a district in northern Beijing. The rent was roughly the same, but the place was at least in an apartment block above ground. The space that my classmate ended up renting was once somebody’s living room, but the landlord had since partitioned it into several smaller apartments. While this place allowed tenants to cook, the kitchen was far too small, and he had to wait in line before he could use it.
The building was run by a nearby real estate agency that had remodeled the rooms and was renting it out. After moving in, my classmate soon noticed that different rent collectors came every month, some of them threatened occupants who couldn’t pay on time. It wasn’t long before he decided to move out.
Several of my other friends have their own stories about renting apartments in the Chinese capital. Some had their deposits stolen, while others had to deal with middlemen from the black market who have bought up much of the housing supply. Rents go up every year, they say, and all you can do is put up with it.
Chinese cities do have state-subsidized public housing, most of which gives priority to low-income residents with local hukou, or household registration. I used to live in public housing in Beijing, but I didn’t pay rent to the government. Instead, I was subletting the apartment from a landlord with a Beijing household registration, who in turn was renting from the state. The rent cost me an arm and a leg, but the money the landlord turned over to the government each month was a pittance.
Many metropolises’ development followed a same path. Back when a city was smaller, urban planners called for more development, higher population, larger municipal sprawl, and diversified industry. Later, they were bound to realize that they had bitten off more than they could chew. Last year, the Chinese government announced that it was relocating certain administrative institutions of Beijing to Xiong’an New Area in nearby Hebei province. Although they’ve ordered a number of businesses to vacate the capital, the number of migrants arriving in the city continues to grow, partly because jobs in Beijing are much more lucrative than those in nearby cities.
For example, after the steel company Shougang moved out of Beijing to the nearby city of Tangshan in 2010, a majority of the firm’s workers chose to stay in Beijing in order to keep their local household registrations. Few workers chose to settle permanently in Tangshan, and most of those who were sent usually returned to Beijing on weekends. As a result, the move did not reduce Beijing’s population.
Meanwhile, the former site of the Shougang factory became home to the city’s famed animation industrial park, and is now attracting new arrivals from all over the country; therefore, the district’s population continues to rise.
The earliest industries in Chinese big cities were made up of standalone firms that were mostly staffed by local residents, making population caps relatively easy to enforce. But from 2000, the rise of new industries on the outskirts of the city — including e-commerce, tech, and computing — led to an influx of skilled workers from around the country. Middle-class arrivals, in turn, have brought with them a wave of delivery drivers, restauranteurs, and rideshare drivers.
At present, the only two options available to residents seeking accommodation in the city are renting or buying. However, the rental market has yet to see the large-scale emergence of government-supplied public housing. Meanwhile, nonlocals looking to buy usually need to have a city's residence permit, face strict purchase and sale limits, and have only limited access to loans.
If the state offered low-income migrants equal access to public housing, it would work in the interest of government to attack on the property bubble and help keep a lid on spiraling real estate prices, not to mention address safety concerns over ghetto fire and basement flooding, to name a few.
During last year’s 19th Communist Party Congress, the Chinese government emphasized its commitment to the principle that the purpose of housing is to provide shelter, not for market speculation. Every young person who comes to big cities to follow their dreams hopes to find a safe place to live. If the authorities truly want to create a city that is safe, attractive, and brimming with vitality, they must set better shelter standards for the people already living in the city.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A elderly man walks past a public housing estate in Fengtai district, Beijing, July 25, 2017. Luo Heng/IC)