For years, Zhao Wenlan has been thinking of buying a washing machine.
But her previous 25-square-meter home in Beijing's Fengtai District, shared by four others--her husband, their son, daughter-in-law and grandson--hardly had room for the gadget.
Last week, Zhao, who moved in with her husband into a new 40-square-meter apartment, said she is now seriously considering the purchase.
"I can buy a washing machine now because there is enough space," says Zhao.
Zhao and her husband, Zhang Zheng, are among the recent beneficiaries of the municipal government's low-rent housing policy.
A batch of 400 low-income families have gotten the nod to move into the low-rent building, located near East Second Ring Road and not far from plush buildings that house high-income earners, and businesses and top hotels. Thirty of the apartments are specially designed for the handicapped.
Beijing Scheme Helps Thousands
About 10,000 households have so far benefited from the low-rent housing scheme started in 2001 by the Beijing government.
Under the plan, about 140,000 urban residents in Beijing who subsist on the government's minimum living allowance are eligible to apply for the low-rent housing. The program also covers poor and disabled veterans and families of those who died while in service to the country.
The Beijing municipal government announced last week that per capita living space in about 10,000 poverty-stricken households had risen from 2.2 square meters in 2001 to 10.7 square meters by the end of last year, thanks to the housing policy.
Zhang Zheng, 78, was eligible for the housing because of his bravery during the Korean War (1950 - 53). He lost both feet in combat.
Even though their apartment is on the 13th floor, the war veteran and his wife, who is also handicapped from childhood, feel no inconvenience.
"We are satisfied that we can live decently as we are getting old," says Zhang. "We never thought we’d be living in a building with elevators, flush toilet and washroom."
The monthly rent per square meter for the new apartment is about 2.5 yuan (30 US cents); the couple pays 100 yuan (US$12) a month. "I can afford it," says Zhang, whose pension is about 1,000 yuan (US$120) per month. Just a few meters away from the 16-story low-rent building stands a commercial residential building, were apartments sell for 7,000 yuan (US$840) per square meter.
The couple is delighted that their grandson, who is attending junior school, can now have his own room to study in their old home back in Fengtai.
Cities Nationwide to Follow
Drawing upon the experience of Beijing, Shanghai and other pioneering cities, the central government recently made public a regulation on low-rent housing management that is scheduled to take effect on March 1.
The government vows to provide low-rent shelter nationwide for the urban poor, who live in low-quality homes with no tap water or toilet facilities.
"We aim to help the poor people in urban areas," says Xie Jiajin, director of the Real Estate Department of the Ministry of Construction.
The regulation says that low-rent housing will be available to every poor urban household that receives the local minimum living allowance; and whose per capita living space is less than 60 percent of the local average.
After the adoption of the program nationwide, the low-rent-housing scheme will become part of China's social security system, together with medical insurance, pension insurance and the minimum living allowance.
The central government began to reform the urban housing system in the mid-1980s. Houses were no longer allocated free to employees by their work units. Instead, market prices are applied to most houses, even though some middle- and low-income families could buy designated houses at cheaper prices. The living space is thus mostly decided by each family's income level.
As China continues on the fast track of economic development, the income gap among Chinese urbanites continues to widen.
The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) recently announced that per capita income of top earners, who account for 20 per cent of the urban population, increased 12.4 percent year-on-year to reach 13,120 yuan (US$1,590) during the January-September period.
In contrast, per capita income of low-income urban residents, who also make up 20 per cent of urbanites, edged up 8.3 per cent year-on-year to 2,433 yuan (US$295) in the same period.
But homes in cities are largely beyond residents' purchasing power, especially low-income earners.
Only about 10 per cent of the housing in Beijing sells for less than 4,000 yuan (US$480) per square meter. In Shanghai, only 18 per cent of the apartments are priced below 3,500 yuan (US$421.6) per square meter and in east China's Hangzhou, only 3.7 per cent are available for below 3,000 yuan (US$360) per square meter.
In underdeveloped western regions, per capita living space is usually lower than the national average.
The latest official survey shows that per-capita floor space in 21 major cities western China is only 17 square meters. Poor families in cities in this part of the country, accounting for 4 percent of urban residents, dwell in old or unsafe places, such as clay shelters, simple plank cabins or aged buildings without kitchens and toilets.
"The scheme to accommodate poor residents in low-rent apartments benefits the city’s neediest," says Director Xie.
But still more money is needed for the projects, which are geared toward helping more people live more comfortably.
"Despite the regulations in place, we still face an uphill task to achieve the goal," says Xie.
(China Daily February 19, 2004)