Wang Xiaoyu

China Daily - - CHINA - Sil­ver lin­ing at 25, ju­nior telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion Tug of war Dark­est mo­ments Con­tact the writer at wangx­i­[email protected]­nadaily.com.cn

Rents fi­nally stopped ris­ing in Bei­jing in Au­gust, fall­ing by 0.28 per­cent from July, and they have con­tin­ued to drop in the months since.

Apart­ment rental app Zi­room re­ported month-on-month falls in av­er­age rents of be­tween 3 and 5 per­cent in Sep­tem­ber and Oc­to­ber, ac­cord­ing to the Bei­jing Mu­nic­i­pal Com­mis­sion of Hous­ing and Ur­banRu­ral De­vel­op­ment.

But they rose by nearly 9 per­cent in the first seven months of last year, ac­cord­ing to a re­port re­leased in Sep­tem­ber by Hous­ing Big Data Re­search, a data lab­o­ra­tory formed by real es­tate ex­perts and re­searchers from the Chi­nese Academy of So­cial Sciences, and Caixin re­ported they were up al­most 22 per­cent year-on-year in July.

The Hous­ing Big Data Re­search re­port at­trib­uted the drop in Au­gust to di­rect in­ter­ven­tion by Bei­jing’s mu­nic­i­pal hous­ing watch­dog, which or­dered real es­tate agen­cies not to use bank loans to buy apart­ments, and to re­lease more apart­ments from stock to the mar­ket.

The rental mar­ket was thrust into the spot­light again in early Sep­tem­ber when news broke that a man had died of leukemia al­legedly caused by ex­ces­sive formalde­hyde lev­els in his rented apart­ment in Hangzhou, Zhe­jiang prov­ince.

The man’s wife sued Zi­room, through which her hus­band rented the apart­ment, and a court hear­ing was sched­uled for Sept 27. But it was post­poned after the court granted Zi­room’s re­quest for a ju­di­cial ap­praisal, The Mir­ror re­ported on Sept 21.

A slew of test re­sults show­ing high lev­els of formalde­hyde in rented homes — from ma­jor cities, in­clud­ing Bei­jing, Shang­hai, Shen­zhen and Guangzhou, both in Guang­dong prov­ince, and else­where — soon sprang up on so­cial me­dia plat­forms.

That added safety con­cerns to renters’ ear­lier anx­i­eties about af­ford­abil­ity.

Among the 8.6 mil­lion renters in Bei­jing ex­pe­ri­enc­ing such feel­ings are col­lege grad­u­ates look­ing to make ends meet.

“Thanks to my rented apart­ment, I turned from a pen­ni­less col­lege grad­u­ate to a pa­tient swamped in debt,” a mi­cro-blog­ger said in a post tagged “Heart­break­ing mo­ments in hous­ing rental.”

A re­port pub­lished on Sept 19 by Ex­pressIn, a re­search and mar­ket­ing firm, tracked the changes in fresh grad­u­ates’ rental pref­er­ences be­tween June and Sep­tem­ber.

It showed that more at­ten­tion — an in­crease of 24 per­cent­age points to 65 per­cent — was be­ing paid to shared apart­ments, with the pop­u­lar­ity of rent­ing whole apart­ments drop­ping 17 per­cent­age points to 52 per­cent.

Mean­while, cheaper rooms in the Bei­jing sub­ur­ban districts of Chang­ping and Tongzhou, es­pe­cially those priced around 2,500 yuan ($370) a month, were find­ing fa­vor with fresh grad­u­ates who ini­tially hoped to live in more cen­trally lo­cated neigh­bor­hoods.

The re­port con­cluded that the changes re­flected “a gap be­tween the ideal and the re­al­ity” for young col­lege grad­u­ates.

At the out­set of their ca­reers, col­lege grad­u­ates in Bei­jing are faced with hav­ing to make com­pro­mises to find the spot they be­lieve they de­serve in the city.

Yang Huan­huan, man­ager com­pany

· Oc­cu­pies one room (40 square me­ters) in a seven-room dor­mi­tory in Xicheng dis­trict (shares one bath­room with six other peo­ple), with rent cov­ered by com­pany

· Earns 8,000 yuan a month

aYang Huan­huan waved farewell to her boyfriend at the Bei­jing South Rail­way Sta­tion on Sept 5.

It was the first time the cou­ple had parted ways since they met while study­ing at Sichuan Univer­sity in Chendgu, the cap­i­tal of south­west­ern China’s Sichuan prov­ince. After grad­u­a­tion, they moved to Hangzhou, the cap­i­tal of eastern China’s Zhe­jiang prov­ince, in Au­gust.

An abrupt trans­fer no­tice or­der­ing Yang, 25, to Bei­jing, thou­sands of kilo­me­ters away from the hu­mid cli­mate she is used to, sent her on an apart­ment search in a city she de­scribed as “stifling, dry and cruel”.

“It’s a one-year re­lo­ca­tion,” she said. “My com­pany of­fered me a free room in a dor­mi­tory, but I wanted to stay with my boyfriend who is pre­par­ing for his doc­tor­ate ap­pli­ca­tion.”

They were op­ti­mistic about find­ing a one-bed­room apart­ment on a bud­get of 4,000 yuan a month un­til a few apart­ment in­spec­tions shat­tered their hopes.

Their tar­geted rooms, a promis­ing list culled from on­line searches, were in­vari­ably glossed over with ma­nip­u­lated pic­tures that cov­ered up drip­ping taps, cramped toi­lets and greasy stove­tops.

On a scorch­ing day in Sep­tem­ber, the cou­ple vis­ited a one-story, tile­droof house nes­tled in an al­ley in Dongcheng dis­trict.

“The kitchen and bath­room were at­tached. When we stepped in, a sewer-like odor, mixed with the pun­gent cook­ing smells emit­ted from the shared ven­ti­la­tion tubes, made me feel nau­seous,” Yang said, frown­ing. “Now, think­ing about it, that visit was the last straw for us.

“We re­al­ize the higher pay and glit­ter­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties in Bei­jing come at a price. I can’t af­ford it, but nor could I re­sist the city’s temp­ta­tions, so I found a way out.”

Yang even­tu­ally moved into the dor­mi­tory and bade farewell to her boyfriend, who re­turned to his home­town.

“I am not a wail­ing baby or a teenager wal­low­ing in self-pity,” she said. “The sil­ver lin­ing is that we saw each other’s com­mit­ment to this re­la­tion­ship dur­ing the room-hunt­ing process in Bei­jing, and that alone will buoy me through dif­fi­cult times.”

Fu Yao, 25, English teacher at the TAL Ed­u­ca­tion Group

· Rents one room (13 sq m) in a two-bed­room apart­ment in Chaoyang dis­trict for 3,500 yuan a month

· Earns 5,000 yuan a month

Four months be­fore Fu Yao fin­ished grad­u­ate school in Bei­jing, she put down a hefty de­posit of about 12,000 yuan with her boyfriend to se­cure a one-year lease of a two-bed­room apart­ment in south­east­ern Bei­jing’s Pan­ji­ayuan neigh­bor­hood, drain­ing their sav­ings from pre­vi­ous in­tern­ships.

“I don’t re­gret rent­ing the apart­ment though I was un­der great fi­nan­cial pres­sure dur­ing the first few months,” she said. “But it was the only way I could to give Mili a home.”

Mili is a cat she adopted in De­cem­ber, one month after she moved into the new apart­ment.

“When I was in col­lege, I was crazy enough to bring a stray kit­ten to my dor­mi­tory, which of course star­tled my room­mates,” Fu said, adding that she came to re­gret her reck­less­ness after learn­ing that cats pre­fer a quiet place where they can cud­dle up to ac­quain­tances.

“Cats can also be a dis­tur­bance be­cause they tend to howl and scratch a lot,” she said. “It would have been ir­re­spon­si­ble of me to adopt a cat if I would not of­fer a suitable en­vi­ron­ment and it’s in­con­sid­er­ate to put oth­ers in the po­si­tion of hav­ing to put up with cats.”

Fu be­gan look­ing for a pet-friendly apart­ment when she was given the op­por­tu­nity to adopt a 6-mon­thold kit­ten for free.

“The room-hunt­ing felt like a tug of war be­tween two sides of me,” she said. “I am an in­ex­pe­ri­enced col­lege girl on a tight bud­get, look­ing to save money. On the flip side, I am an ‘ex­pec­tant mother’ driven to build a warm home for my ‘kid’.”

Fu’s bud­get edged up bit by bit as her de­sire to raise a pet ruled out most in­ex­pen­sive op­tions.

Even though she had to sub­let the smaller bed­room in Fe­bru­ary to make ends meet, she feels blessed to have found an apart­ment where her cat is free to roam around.

“At least I got to choose a room­mate who likes cats, and they get along pretty well,” she said.

“I don’t see Mili as a bur­den. In a big city like Bei­jing, life gets hard, es­pe­cially for young peo­ple like me. And the re­as­sur­ance and warmth Mili gives me when she curls up in my arms are price­less.”

Chang Jin­jin, 23, en­try-level job at a real es­tate com­pany

· Rents one room (12 sq m) in a three-bed­room apart­ment in Chaoyang dis­trict for 2,600 yuan a month

· Earns 5,000 yuan a month

Chang Jin­jin has moved about seven times in Bei­jing since grad­u­at­ing from a col­lege in Shi­ji­azhuang, the cap­i­tal of north­ern China’s He­bei prov­ince, in the mid­dle of 2017.

Dur­ing her most des­per­ate mo­ments, she braved bit­ing gusts of wind on sev­eral evenings in De­cem­ber to look for a new place to live. The par­ti­tioned room where she had been stay­ing was de­mol­ished after 19 peo­ple died in a blaze in Dax­ing dis­trict that prompted a city­wide in­spec­tion to elim­i­nate fire haz­ards in apart­ment build­ings.

“The rental com­pany de­liv­ered an ul­ti­ma­tum in a text mes­sage, say­ing that my room would be ‘smashed down’ in two days,” Chang said.

She was one of many who had to move out and find a new room at short no­tice.

“I de­posited my suit­case at my friend’s home, and got off at each stop on Sub­way Line 10 to in­quire at agen­cies in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions,” Chang said. “No rooms were avail­able. All the agency staff flatly turned me down.

“A staff mem­ber told me that he him­self was scram­bling for a room at that time. Newly listed rooms on the rental app were leased out in a split sec­ond.”

Chang had no choice but to try her luck by vis­it­ing ev­ery brick­sand-mor­tar agency she could find while con­stantly re­fresh­ing the pages of rental apps and fo­rums.

Be­fore De­cem­ber, she had al­ready moved sev­eral times. She squeezed into a bunk bed in a room shared with three strangers, was cheated by il­le­git­i­mate agents and fake loan plans, and for one month spent five hours com­mut­ing each day.

But at least she had a place to stay and sleep at night.

“I was am­bi­tious and keen to ad­vance my ca­reer when I first ar­rived here,” Chang said. “Months of mov­ing around wore out my spirit and body.”

The weight of a month­s­long law­suit was the last thing Zhang Yue­dong was think­ing about when he signed a con­tract with apart­ment rental app Zi­room in July for an apart­ment he has since left.

But then he be­gan cough­ing re­peat­edly and his nose wouldn’t stop bleed­ing dur­ing staff meet­ings. And then Zi­room ac­cused him of fak­ing air in­spec­tion records.

Four months later, he is among a group of about 100 peo­ple across China who have filed, or are plan­ning to file, law­suits against Zi­room.

Zhang and the oth­ers found them­selves de­vel­op­ing rashes, nose­bleeds and sore throats after mov­ing into apart­ments rented through Zi­room. Tests of the in­door air qual­ity in their dwellings in­di­cated un­healthy lev­els of toxic chem­i­cals, in­clud­ing formalde­hyde, a po­ten­tial car­cino­gen.

Zhang fin­ished his bach­e­lor’s de­gree in Shenyang, cap­i­tal of north­east­ern China’s Liaon­ing prov­ince, in 2017, and then worked briefly in Shang­hai be­fore mov­ing to Bei­jing in July.

“The agent from Zi­room told me the room had been re­cently re­fur­bished, and all con­struc­tion work con­formed to the na­tional stan­dards,” he said. “But the test­ing paper I used — show­ing three times more toxic chem­i­cals ac­cu­mu­lated in the room than nor­mal — told a dif­fer­ent story.”

Later tests from pro­fes­sional air in­spec­tion com­pa­nies also in­di­cated high lev­els of formalde­hyde.

Zhang con­tacted Zi­room in early Sep­tem­ber, ask­ing for an of­fi­cial apol­ogy, a re­fund of the de­posit and rent he had paid, and com­pen­sa­tion for his re­moval costs.

“They pro­posed to con­duct an­other round of air in­spec­tion in mid-Sep­tem­ber,” he said. “And they stood me up after mak­ing an ap­point­ment with me.

“On Sept 26, two re­gional man­agers showed up hold­ing an agree­ment with a li­a­bil­ity waiver at­tached. No way in the world would I sign such a shame­less doc­u­ment.”

In re­sponse to the wider air qual­ity con­tro­versy, Zi­room said on Sept 11 that newly re­fur­bished apart­ments would be left va­cant for at least 30 days and would have to pass tests for in­door air qual­ity be­fore be­ing listed, be­gin­ning from Sept 24.

Zhang stud­ied wine­mak­ing in col­lege, and is now work­ing for a me­dia com­pany as an ed­i­tor fo­cused on wine-re­lated top­ics.

A lack of a back­ground in law didn’t stop him from con­fronting a suc­cess­ful startup com­pany in the rental busi­ness.

“I am run­ning a mi­cro blog ac­count, post­ing and for­ward­ing posts re­lated to air safety is­sues in rental apart­ments,” Zhang said.

He is also pro­vid­ing ad­vice to renters who en­counter high lev­els of toxic chem­i­cals in their apart­ments. To­gether, they have hired a few lawyers to han­dle their cases.

“It is daunt­ing work, in ad­di­tion to my daily job as­sign­ments, but it’s ur­gent and im­por­tant to draw at­ten­tion to the harm­ful op­er­a­tions of rental com­pa­nies,” Zhang said.

LIANG LUWEN / FOR CHINA DAILY

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY WANG JING / CHINA DAILY

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