Housing in China: families hang on to rationed quarters

How does a Chinese find living quarters if he does not own his own home? They are assigned to him. Have the applicants any choice? Yes, a limited amount. Young people of today have grown up in crowded quarters - families of their generation had several children, and grandparents may also have shared the dwelling. So used to companionship are they that it is difficult for them to understand that one likes to ''batch it'' or that one is not disturbed being alone in a hotel room even for one night.

In the country, young adults may continue to live with parents. Grandmother makes an ideal babysitter and cook for three working adults (she retires at 50, her husband later). Some young farm couples working many miles from home at the commune center are provided with apartments or homes nearby. Sometimes parents build small homes for other sons, even those working in town. An acquaintance visits his wife in such a home monthly. She cannot move to town, and his request to transfer home has not yet been approved. (Formerly such divided households were common, some lasting 10 to 20 years. Today the authorities try to reunite spouses.)

On the whole, accommodations seem easier to come by in the country. City youth, too, will live at home unless a dorm room available at their work unit is more convenient than a long commute. People work six days, have nighttime meetings, and can benefit from fringes like inexpensive movies and free sports facilities.

These unmarried young people live in pairs in plain rooms with communal toilets and washrooms. They get their food in the organization's dining hall. More than two may share a room if space is short, these extras usually leaving to spend the weekend with their family elsewhere in the area.

A bed, desk, and chair may be provided, perhaps more. Individuals can also use their own furniture. At one new university, one young teacher had a room to herself and after a year was buying the furniture - a portion of her previous rent being allocated toward the cost and low monthly payments until she paid it off. She had to admit to a certain good fortune, although she felt in exile, away from her home. At another branch of the same institution, a man, his wife, and two sons lived in the same type of single room. They have been waiting for a new assignment for some time.

If one marries or needs more room, he applies to the unit's housing committee. Restrictions encompass the applicants, however: one marries only if the employers of both parties approve; in-laws move in, but only if their migration to the city is justified.

The scarcity of housing is longstanding, with extensive building occurring only after the Cultural Revolution. The present allocation system is new. Applications to the housing committee of the work unit are reviewed by a membership composed of workers and a leader. They establish priorities. When space becomes available, a move takes place.

Should the committee abuse its privilege, perhaps playing favorites, criticism is expected and punishment can result. Several cases involving punishing leaders in other regions have cheered the Chinese in recent months.

Death, transfer out of the area, and new construction seem to be the only causes for vacancies. Families do not lose space upon retirement or the departure of adult children. Even with the transfer of an individual, his spouse and children may not move unless she receives a similar posting.

Imagine the scene when a new block of apartments is opened. (This may take a while. It is sometimes difficult to oust the finishing crew, living in spatial luxury among its paint cans.) The process is a game of musical chairs, families shuttling their goods like busy ants streaming from building to building across the entire site. Because of the paucity of construction throughout the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76, and the natural expansion of the work force, seniority is the key when spaces are added.

In all this shifting, an element of choice exists. One can elect not to move. The family may prefer an older house with wooden floors (warmer and more aesthetic). The view or environment or the convenience of location are factors. Also a family may have made improvements it is reluctant to abandon. The only ones unlikely to reject space are those just emerging from the dormitories.

In most places, the pinch has eased or is easing now for all but the youngest couples. These were married within the past three or four years, are in their late 20s and early 30s, and have been working since 1975 or so. Some may have had to delay their marriages when permission to wed was withheld because housing was not available.

Others ''fudged'' a bit, probably with tacit approval - the wife moves into her husband's dormitory room while continuing to pay rent for her own assigned place in the same work unit. The husband's legal roommate trades off somewhere else. A score or more of such married couples may live this way despite the problems this raises for the visiting sex.

Many husbands and wives work for different units, however. In interesting recognition of the problems of working mothers, females have priorities for housing in such mixed marriages. Not all couples take advantage of this. Perhaps the man's job entitles him to larger or nicer quarters (leaders and senior staff may have three or four rooms with balcony, toilet, kitchen, and entry instead of the usual two); perhaps his placement priority will come up before hers.

A Housing Management Company operates in large cities and towns. It, in effect, manages public housing - for city employees and workers whose outfits, such as a shop, are too small to have quarters of their own.

The Chinese government has the right of eminent domain, paying compensation and giving the expropriated first refusal on new apartment space. The former homeowner then becomes a renter, for co-ops and condominiums are undeveloped here.

If a man changes his job, an uncommon occurrence in China, the family may not move to another location. The new employer may not have a suitable space, the family apartment may be at the other wife's work unit, or the family may not want to give up long-sought quarters

One alternative, available in major cities, is apartment swapping. This can be arranged at the housing center. If a pair or even a trio can be matched up for an acceptable trade, the exchange can be effected. Some 17,000 families have reportedly availed themselves of this procedure in Beijing (Peking) alone.

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