Qiao Jian, a secretary at a university in downtown Beijing where her husband is also on the support staff, has to rise before 6 a.m. if she wants to get to work on time. Her daily commute adds up to at least three hours.
She is one of 400,000 residents of the Huilongguan apartment community, Beijing's largest affordable apartment complex. It's located in northern Changping District, outside the Fifth Ring Road.
Technically speaking, she lives outside the central city, since that ring road is considered to be the "outer limits" of the urban area.
Qiao and her husband, both Beijingers, bought a three-bedroom affordable apartment six years ago for about 1,060 yuan (155 U.S. dollars) per square meter, less than half of the price of commercial housing at the time in that area.
"This type of apartment was affordable for us, and we can have extra rooms for my son and guests. But we have to commute a long way," she told Xinhua. After the long trip home from work, her first desire was just to lie down on the sofa, she said.
Many similar urban families in China have bought bigger and cheaper homes, as the country completed more than 60 million sq m of affordable apartments last year and helped 2.53 million low- and medium-income urban families solve their housing problems from2005 to 2008, Qi Ji, vice minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, told reporters in March at the Second Session of the 11th National People's Congress.
Like many other Chinese cities, Beijing has seen commercial home price hikes in recent years. Second-hand home prices have exceeded 18,000 yuan per sq m, on average, in Qiao's university area. Buying just 3 sq m of apartment space near her job would take her entire current annual income, but an affordable home in Huilongguan, even now, would be only about half of the downtown price.
Qiao takes Subway Line 13, transfers to Line 2, and then changes to a bus to get to her university outside the western Second Ring Road.
TRANSPORT EXPANSION LAGS DEMAND
"We don't want to sit in our car in a traffic jam, as the traffic from our community headed downtown is usually heavy during peak hours, so we normally avoid driving. We need to get on the subway at about 6:30, before it becomes unbearably crowded, to get to our offices before 8 a.m.," she said.
Although the municipal government spent more than 19.8 billion yuan in the first five months of this year, up 28.7 percent from a year earlier, on transportation, including roads and subways, the rush hour commute is still tough. There are more than 3.5 million cars in Beijing, and another 1,200 go on the road every day.
"My husband and I like to stay at work for an hour or so after quitting time before setting out for the subway, to avoid the crowds. You can get squeezed like a photo stuck in a photo album," she said.
"When we first moved to the area, there were no supermarkets nearby, so we had to get on the subway home in the evening with shopping bags full of food and daily necessities in both hands," Qiao said. But more retailers like Carrefour have appeared around the neighborhood in the past two years.
Residents in the neighborhood would also benefit from a branch of a big public hospital, the renowned Beijing Ji Shui Tan Hospital, which is set to open at the end of the year. The new hospital is to have 500 beds and receive 1,500 patients daily.
PART OF THE BIG PICTURE
Qiao and her community are just a small part of the big picture. Of the 100 billion yuan added to the central budget in the fourth quarter last year, 7.5 billion yuan was appropriated for low-rent and affordable apartments across the country.
The government said last month that 300 billion yuan had been allotted for the 4-trillion-yuan stimulus package announced last November, of which 37.5 billion yuan would go to low-rent and affordable homes, including the 7.5 billion yuan allocated in the fourth quarter.
"I know that we can not get everything at one stroke, but I believe my community will become better and more convenient to live in," Qiao said.
Any observant subway commuter in Beijing would notice that after 7 p.m., Line 5 headed north was still packed, while that line going south was much less crowded.
The 27.6-km Line 5 runs from the northern Tiantongyuan station, another major affordable apartment complex outside the northern Fifth Ring Road, to southern Songjiazhuang, a station outside the southern Third Ring Road.
Qin Rui, a senior analyst with Beijing-based 5i5j Real Estate Service Co., told Xinhua Thursday that Beijingers preferred apartments in the northern part of the city, partly because of a traditional belief that the air and water were better in the north.
This belief dates back centuries: the world-famous Summer Palace, used by imperial families, is in northern Beijing.
"However, in recent years, people's beliefs have begun to change as more housing projects appeared in the southern part of the city and prices were lower compared with other areas. There would be new home projects including some affordable home projects in the coming years in southern Beijing that would attract many potential home buyers," Qin added.
ATTITUDES CHANGE WITH COSTS
Figures from 5i5j showed that among the 10 parcels of land for building affordable homes sold to developers in Beijing last year, four were in the southern Fengtai and Daxing districts, showing the city's efforts to boost less developed areas.
No city-level average data for land prices in the south and north are available, but figures from 5i5j indicate that land in the north is more expensive.
Three parcels of land designated for building affordable homes in Daxing last year fell into the range of 2,119 yuan to 2,449 yuan per sq m, while four sites in northern Changping fell into the range of 2,794 yuan to 4,899 yuan per sq m.
Prices of second-hand homes are now about 9,000 yuan per sq m near Tiantongyuan. A similar residence would cost 11,000 yuan per sq m near Songjiazhuang, while the price in Daxing outside the southern Fifth Ring Road was about 7,500 yuan per sq m, on average, said Qin.
Average prices for second-hand homes in the more developed northern Third Ring Road area exceed 17,000 yuan per sq m.
It would take time for hospitals, schools, banks and other facilities to develop near the new home projects in the southern city and catch up with other districts of the city. But the development of the city's southern half was speeding up, he added.
Many Beijingers will have to compromise on facilities and convenience, like Qiao did, to afford a home of their own. A report released earlier this month by the People's Bank of China, the central bank, discussed a survey of 50 cities nationwide, including Beijing.
The survey found that more than 60 percent of respondents considered current home prices "too high" and expressed the intention of getting affordable homes.
Qiao has been worried about how to help her 20-something son, Fanfan, set up a home in the coming years, given high urban prices.
However, Fanfan, born and bred in Beijing, did not rule out the possibility of buying a relatively cheap apartment in the southern part of the city. His main concern was easy access to subways for going to work and socializing.
Fanfan would likely take heart from the city's massive subway expansion plans that will improve service in the south. The 28.2-km Subway Line 4 is scheduled to go into operation in September, linking Fengtai, southwestern Xuanwu, western Xicheng and northern Haidian districts.
A 21.8-km subway line connecting Daxing with Subway Line 4 is set to go into service at the end of next year.
So Fanfan will be able to skip the bus and take subways to visit his parents, if he buys an apartment in Fengtai or Daxing in the future.