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Home out of reach for many young Chinese

Updated: 2009-11-25 17:35

In the hit Chinese television drama, "Dwelling Narrowness," one of the main characters becomes the mistress of a government official in order to help repay her older sister's mortgage.

The 35-episode series, which stars actress Vivian Wu (Wu Junmei), has touched a raw nerve in its audience, who sympathize with the characters moral dilemmas.

The story follows the trials of two full sisters struggling to buy affordable apartments in an unnamed big city, believed to resemble Shanghai, where house prices have soared beyond the lifetime disposable incomes of most people.

"I was deeply moved though I don't think it was the right decision," says Beijing office worker Zhou Yuan of the younger sister's decision to become a mistress.

But the characters are simply mirroring the choices that many urban Chinese are facing everyday as the booming real estate market erodes their dreams of becoming home-owners.

"They epitomize a large group of urban young people tormented by material desire and anxiety in daily life," says Professor Zhang Yiwu, of Peking University. "Just like snails carrying a heavy shell."

The government launched a sweeping reform of the housing market in the late 1990s, scrapping the government allocation of homes to urban workers.

Since the reform, property development has boomed. Strong demand and scarce land resources have driven up prices, as more people move to big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

The stress of home-buying has twisted the values of some people, especially the young, who were often forced to give up their independence and self-reliance, says Zhang.

According to Beijing Municipal Statistics Bureau, the city's average annual income in 2008 was 44,715 yuan ($6,546), while urban apartments were selling for an average 15,581 yuan per sq m.

An apartment of 80 sq m costs almost 1.25 million yuan, which would require a household of two wage-earners to repay with half their salaries for 30 years -- without interest.

"It's unbelievably high," says Yu Mengxuan, a 25-year-old office worker who lives with her parents in Beijing. "Just one sq m costs more than three months' salary.

"It's impossible to make the deposit without the help of your parents."

In China, home-buyers are required to pay at least 25 percent as the first installment. Parents have traditionally channeled their savings into their children's homes, which is one of the reasons why Chinese save more, but spend less.

However, house prices will keep moving upward in 2010, according to a report released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on Nov 16.

Professor Wang Fuzhong, of Beihang University finance department, blames the economic structure in which local governments profit greatly from the property industry, lessening their incentive to curb prices.

A survey by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress shows low-income home construction in 2009 was behind target with only 23.6 percent investment realized by the end of August. Government subsidized affordable homes are the main plank in efforts to curtail the rise prices.

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The government is also encouraging young people to rent before they buy, and plans to build public rental housing to relieve the pressure.

But the popular concept of owning a home as a requirement for marriage is driving many young couples apart as the dream becomes unattainable.

Jin Danlei, 25, a native of eastern Jiangsu province who stayed in Beijing after graduating from university, says, "My mother told me my would-be husband should buy an apartment, at least on a mortgage."

Others, like Yu, disagree. "Renting a room for the time being is okay for young couples. It takes time to improve our lives."