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.