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China

The Tenement Nightmares Of Beijing's Migrant Masses

You're gonna need a bigger room...
You're gonna need a bigger room...
Shen Nienzu, Chen Zhe and Wang Xuewei

BEIJING - Mengyun 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 ever had in the four years I've lived in Beijing,” she says. “And it costs me only 950 RMB ($155) per month.”

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

Mengyun is part of the ongoing massive migration to China's 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 some seven million migrants, who are increasingly forced to live in tiny spaces, typically partitioned pieces of shared apartments and rooms.

Mengyun, who arrived in the capital after graduating from a college in her native Henan Province in 2009, currently earns 2,500 RMB ($408) monthly as a clerk at a wine importer, but is always uncertain about having decent shelter.

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 Mengyun is very anxious that she may be obliged to move for the fifth time.

Eviction without warning

Mengyun's last move was also related to Beijing's group rental housing rectification campaign in Baihuan Residential District.

Next to the Shuanjing station, which is just one stop away from Beijing's central business district, Baihuan Residential District is the first choice of home for many white-collar workers. It was also the optimal solution for Mengyun, 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 RMB ($106). The 120 square meters apartment was divided into 13 tiny spaces separated with thin clapboard partitions — squeezed inside were exactly 23 people.

“Whether for brushing your teeth or taking a shower, you had to get in line,” Mengyun recalls. “In the night, you 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 second season's rent, Beijing launched a crackdown on Baihuan district's group-renting.

“At that time, just the Baihuan residential district alone accounted for more than half of the Jingsong District's cases of public disorder,” says Ma Xiaoyong, media director of Jingsong district's neighborhood office. “I remember a place that set the record. Ninety square meters of space stacked with 26 bunk beds and 52 people.”

Mengyun ignored the information about the crackdown thinking it was just another propaganda stunt, until the relevant departments 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 district's neighborhood office, this action cleaned more than 400 group rental apartments.

But after just a month, group renting resurfaced, except “the space separated with clapboards went up a bit and so did the rent,” says Mengyun, who lost her deposit but got back two months of the prepaid rental in the last crackdown. “Although the rental has 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

A fruit of the “affordable housing” plan, the Baihuan Residential District was built in 2000 with an average surface of 120 square meters per unit. “Thanks to the relatively generous surface area, most of these apartments were bought by non-locals as investments,” Ma Xiaoyong tells the Economic Observer. “Many owners didn't even take a look at the house before handing it on to the intermediaries. 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 — people who originally rented the apartment then separated them into densely reallocated rooms to sublet. A head tenant can rent an entire apartment for around 7,000-8,000 RMB ($1,141 to $1,305). 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 15,000-20,000 RMB ($2450 to 3$,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, has 13 bunk beds and 26 persons, with only one bathroom and toilet. The average per bed price is 550 RMB ($90).

“We generally don't like this group bed renting, which has a high turnover of tenants and is difficult to manage, but it has a certain market due to low prices,” says one intermediary.

Mengyun's current home is in an apartment originally designed as two rooms 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,” Mengyun says.

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.”

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