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Beijing slum residents hold out hope for change

Publication Date : 24-12-2013


In the heart of Beijing's modern central business district, a tiny shanty town bustles, seemingly frozen in time, sticking out like a sore thumb amid - or some say refreshing respite from - the uniformly glass-clad skyscrapers towering over it.

Sun Jiake, 60, is one of the residents in this shanty town. There are hundreds of such pockets of land in Beijing, passed over for redevelopment in the capital's march towards growth and modernisation. Many of Beijing's poor live in these squalid areas.

Sun's home in Huashiying village is a single-storey, approximately 250 sq ft brick unit that he and his wife Guan Shu Ming, 58, have lived in for over 30 years.

Its entrance is down a lane lined with low-slung electrical wires. The unit is partitioned into three areas: a tiny kitchen in the front, followed by two cluttered bedrooms. They share a public bathroom with other residents.

Across China, slums like these, with poorly built structures, pockmark its huge cities. Experts say they are not only an eyesore, but also pose a problem, with the houses at risk of fire or collapse.

Within Beijing's fourth ring road, for instance, there are about 527 such slums with 23,000 households of 700,000 people, said a report by news portal in July. But while the location of Sun's home within the third ring road to the city's east and close to Dongdaqiao subway station is a definite plus, the retired couple, who have Beijing urban hukou, or household registration, are eager for it to be demolished.

In return, they hope to be compensated in cash or be provided a flat in one of the government's affordable housing projects.

"The government has been raising our hopes and saying for years they'll demolish the area but they haven't taken any action. We continue to live here as we can't afford a new home with current home prices," said Guan, who estimates that there are 200 to 300 families living in the village.

But as the neighbourhood prospers, the value of the land the shanty town sits on has increased dramatically, making any urban renewal difficult due to the huge corresponding compensation that would have to be paid out.

Residents The Straits Times spoke to say while they are happy with the convenience of life in the area with its small shops selling fresh produce and other daily items, living conditions can be challenging, particularly during winter. As there is no modern heating system, Wang, a 45-year-old resident who would give only her surname, said she burns coal to stay warm.

"When it rains during winter, our home floods and during the summer months, the area is filled with rubbish," she said. "It's also noisy and messy and not as safe now, especially with so many people renting rooms here."

Like the Suns, Wang, who lives with six other family members in a 1,000 sq ft four-room house, is hoping the government will relocate them to a newer and safer affordable housing project.

"But hopefully, we can get something within the fifth ring road. The location won't be as good but with time, we can get used to it," she added.

Apart from local residents who own their houses, many others who live here are migrant workers renting tiny rooms for which they pay the still relatively affordable monthly rentals of about 1,000 yuan (US$164.97).

These slums are a stark reminder of the huge challenge that housing the booming urban population poses to the government.

Experts say Beijing's unwieldy policies make it difficult even for some possibly deserving households with Beijing hukou to qualify for affordable housing.

Sun, for instance, said his lack of the necessary property rights documentation - a prerequisite for application - had prevented him from being eligible for a home under the affordable housing programme, whether for rental or to purchase.

But the authorities seem to have awakened to this problem, announcing plans to give these estates a makeover recently. In July, the government pledged 500 billion yuan ($82 billion) over the next five years to redevelop these shanty towns.

Guan is hopeful but remains sceptical. "I hope the government will not just pay lip service in their efforts to solve the housing problem. Look at how messy it is here, yet we've been here 30 years and there's still no change till we've lost hope."


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