Lust for housing deadliest sin in materialistic modern markets

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2012-10-25 22:20:04

The red-hot real estate market in China has been under the spotlight for a while. But it had been no more than a media sensation to me until recently when everyone I know or know of in China suddenly seems to be anxious about the problem.

A friend in Beijing was planning his wedding when his fiancee broke up with him because, despite his best efforts, he failed to buy an apartment for them.

My friend is a teacher in a private prep school and labels himself as a "gold collar," a term for people who make decent money. He shared an advertisement slogan from a real estate company with me: "Marriage without housing is sexual harassment."

"Whenever I saw it on the subway or on a bill board, I was sweating and hoping my fiancee didn't see it. Now I know she did," he said.

Another friend in Shanghai is planning her divorce. She is studying for her PhD and has no job. Her husband, a lawyer, has been the sole breadwinner in the family. But she proposed the divorce.

While she is mourning her failed marriage, she said she is not worried about making ends meet as a single mom for a three-year-old. "I bought this apartment before the marriage. So it will still be mine afterward. I have property," she said.

And then, there is my cousin Xiang, who has a new baby. Xiang makes 6,000 yuan ($960) per month as a government employee in my hometown, a second tier city in northern China.

 He is thinking of buying an apartment in a neighborhood that has a good school. It will cost 1 million yuan ($160,000). His savings, plus the maximum mortgage he could get from the bank, won't cover half of the price. He has to borrow 600,000 yuan through high interest rate private loans.

When he laid out these figures to me, I was shocked. It sounds like the perfect formula for a foreclosure train crash. But he said: "I have to. I don't want to fail my son. I want to give him the best education possible."  

And, of course, there is Mo Yan. The newly crowned winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature told reporters that he was dreaming of buying a big apartment in Beijing with his 7.5 million yuan award, until he realized the money meant he could barely afford a decent sized apartment in the capital, let alone one that could comfortably house the three generations of his family who live with him.

Housing is an important issue everywhere. An overheated real estate market can easily drive people to make insane decisions.

In the US, the disastrous aftermath of the housing boom and their subprime loans has been a major reason for the slowness of economic recovery. Some major city governments are designing capsule apartments, smaller than a normal hotel room, to ease the housing crisis.

But the housing obsession in China is something else. According to a recent Lloyds TSB International Global Housing Market Review, the average real estate price in China has jumped 47 percent in the past decade and the nation is now ranked 14th among the 32 countries surveyed. Meanwhile, the US has seen a 2 percent price drop in that time.

Of course, geographic disparity is huge in China and the effects of the housing boom are drastically different depending on the region and city.

The price hikes in big cities are often a lot higher than average. But the housing issue seems to have gone well beyond the golden rule of demand and supply.

Even real estate guru Feng Lun told young people not to worry about housing in his blog. "The older generations all have housing. When they pass away, it's all yours. For people who were born in the 1990s, there will even be a housing surplus then," he said in reference to China's changing demographics. 

But in today's China words like these may mean little. The lust for housing has viciously invaded every stage of people's lives. People seem to have even invented a new value system where housing is the new gold standard.

Morality, like the advertising slogan, love, like the aborted wedding, probability of survival, like the divorcee weighing her future, parenting, like the plight of the desperate young father, and even the value of money itself, like the case of the Nobel Laureate, are all measured against the new values.

Under such a system, housing is largely considered a fountain of pleasure. But in reality, it is more a source of gloom. Those who don't have it are haunted by the high prices and those who do by the possibility of a bubble bursting. Double unhappiness.

The author is a New York-based journalist.

Posted in: Columnists, Viewpoint

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