Shortage of Housing Cramps Urban China

IN major Chinese cities, millions of people are living in poor conditions as jobless rural migrants flood in from the countryside, increasing housing shortages in already overcrowded urban areas. Amid rampant speculation and official corruption in real estate development, many people are scrambling for even the most basic, affordable shelter.

Yu Guizhi, for example, has bounced from one closet-sized accommodation to the next since surreptitiously moving to Beijing from her native Anhui province two years ago. Ms. Yu, who works at a Beijing restaurant and lacks proper residence papers for Beijing, spent six months in a $5 per month student dormitory. She then rented a ``pingfang,'' a room off of a traditional Chinese courtyard with no heat, gas for cooking, or water for $4.40 monthly.

An elderly shopkeeper rented her a basement room for $17 a month but she only stayed one month. Her current rental, found through a policeman friend, is owned by a government worker on assignment in the United States for two years. But he is coming back for a month's visit, forcing her to find temporary lodging elsewhere. ``I'm underground. Officially, I'm not here,'' says Yu, not her real name. ``If you want to rent, it's very difficult and a big money problem. But I'm willing to do this to stay in Beijing.'' Living in poverty

According to the official Workers Daily, 4.4 million urban families live in conditions of less than three square meters per person, and their numbers are increasing by 400,000 yearly. By the turn of the century, Chinese living in urban poverty will almost double, forcing the government to build more than twice as much housing each year than it is currently doing.

In Beijing, more than 10 percent of the capital's 2.2 million households suffer poor living conditions, city officials say. The average living area reportedly has doubled in size since the communists took power in 1949, and further expansion of living space is planned. But commercial development, road construction, and the press of rural migrants, whose population in Beijing has increased six times to 1.5 million in the last 15 years, is stretching the limits of city housing.

``Since the Municipal People's Government doesn't take care of migrants, currently we don't feel the pressure at all. Many live with parents, relatives, friends, or as guests of [work units],'' says Zheng Qing, an official with the Beijing Housing Reform Office. ``But in the long run, the government will have to deal with this problem of housing the migrants.''

The stark living conditions of many Chinese are thrown into sharp relief by the pell-mell construction of luxury hotels and apartments, office towers, golf courses, race tracks, and the real estate speculation that has swept the country in the last year.

In the first half of the year, soaring economic growth fueled a doubling in property investment and a flood of real estate lending, most of which went into stock market speculation rather than property development. The financial drain threw the fast-growing Chinese economy into crisis and prompted government measures to tighten credit, increase interest rates, and recall speculative loans.

The government insists it has cooled property speculation, although banking and finance officials admit privately that recouping more than one-third of the outstanding speculative loans would close down many half-finished projects and throw the economy into a tailspin. Recently, Hou Jie, construction minister, ordered that proposed luxury apartments, hotels, and office buildings be strictly controlled and that new plans for race courses and golf courses not be allowed, according to the New China News Agency.

Real estate companies, which tripled in number to almost 10,000 in 1992, have to build 20 percent of their houses at low cost and sell them at little profit either to the government or on the market. Rising rents

But the emergency measures have provided little relief to millions of urbanites living in cramped, decaying quarters. Since the government began phasing out subsidized housing five years ago, rents have risen steadily. Buying a home is impossible for most residents of Beijing where housing prices have almost doubled in the last year.

In the Chinese capital, many people also face the prospect of being relocated farther out if their old housing is taken over for new roads, commercial development, or a high-rise building. Increasingly, residents facing a move try to swap or rent houses, which are allocated by each person's work unit, in order to stay near their job.

One young couple had to give up their apartment after the husband quit his government job to go into private business. Unable to find a house on their own, they now live in the wife's one-room office.

A Beijing retiree, living with his wife on about $40 a month, will probably be forced out of their two rooms to make way for a shopping center. They live down one of Beijing's narrow lanes, in a traditional Chinese house along with 11 other families crowded into rooms around two courtyards. There is no toilet and the water is supplied through a single pipe.

``The newspapers reported that this will be a shopping area and the houses across the street have already been torn down. If we have to move out, we will get a place to live in a high-rise,'' the elderly woman says. ``Even if we don't want to live in a high-rise, we will have to.''

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