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A Room of Ones' Own Is a Distant Dream

In Shanghai, government policy results in acutely overcrowded, dilapidated housing

(Page 2 of 2)

TWO-THIRDS of the homes and apartments in central Shanghai lack toilets and baths; 40 percent are in ``poor condition,'' official figures show. Blocked pipes, leaky roofs, and cracked floors are common. Thousands of apartments are in ``dangerous'' disrepair, the local press says.

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Meanwhile, Shanghai's population growth has far outpaced government funds for constructing new housing, causing chronic shortages. Many residents wait years for accommodation.

What Shanghainese complain about most bitterly is the rampant corruption among bureaucrats who allocate housing. Officials snap up the spacious homes for themselves and their offspring, even in excess of what they can use. More than 10,000 new apartments in Shanghai have been unoccupied for up to four years due to ``injustices in allocation,'' the official Xin Min Evening News reported last month.

Jammed into such close quarters that ``there is no place to stick in a pin,'' as a local saying goes, Shanghainese say their decisions on marriage, jobs, and even childbirth hinge on housing. The Wang family's dilemma is typical: For the past 15 years, Wang Li, her husband, and two sons have lived in a ``pigeon coop'' - a 9 ft. by 12 ft. loft on the second floor of a rundown house half a century old.

``We don't have [political] power, we don't have money, so we can't hope for a good place to live,'' says Mrs. Wang, a retired factory worker. The family's monthly income is $127.

``For a good house, you have to be a bigwig or pay thousands of yuan in bribe money - otherwise, forget it,'' she says, asking that her real name be withheld.

The Wangs' room has one window opening onto a noisy intersection. A bamboo ladder leads to a cupboard-like tier above the parents' bed, where the sons sleep in cool weather. When summer makes the bunk unbearable, the young men sleep as they have since boyhood, shoulder-to-shoulder on a straw mat on the worn, wooden floor.

In a dark hallway beyond the door, Mrs. Wang cooks on a single-burner stove fueled with coal briquets. A wicker basket and cooking utensils hang from the ceiling.

For bathing, the Wangs heat water drawn from a tap at the sidewalk entryway and fill a wooden tub barely big enough for a man to sit in. In lieu of a distant public toilet, they use a wooden matong, or night stool, which Wang empties each morning into a public vat down the block.

Family members have no privacy, lacking even one of the folding cloth screens used to partition rooms in many Shanghai homes.

Like many residents, Wang's bachelor sons complain that scant housing limits their marriage prospects.

``Eighty percent of the problem of getting married is housing,'' says the 25-year-old son, sipping a soda pop. The printing-factory worker faces at least a five-year wait until his employer assigns him a room.

``A girlfriend won't go through [marriage registration] until she really believes you'll get an apartment,'' he says. The catch-22 is that married couples enjoy priority in housing allocations. A recent survey in the official China Women's News showed that 40 percent of Shanghai couples who ``married in haste'' did so for rooming.

Some couples fail to obtain housing even after waiting several years. As a recourse, their employers rent them private rooms on Sundays. Shanghainese jokingly call the practice ``meeting on a bridge formed by magpies,'' after a legend about a goddess and her husband who live at opposite ends of the Milky Way.