A housing project in Hegezhuang village called "Real Life", which begun in 2007, is transforming broken-down homes to benefit the local community and meet the demand from renters who want to live the lifestyle of an old-fashioned courtyard house.
In Chaoyang district, Hegezhuang village has 301 old and elegant Chinese courtyard houses scattered over 12 hectares of land. For years, many of the more than 1,000 villagers have made their living by dividing up their courtyard houses into rooms and renting to thousands of migrants. "Renters moved in the small rooms in our house because of cheap rent," said villager Tian Shuqing.
Owners made about $150 a month in rent, but inefficient management and the number of residents caused many problems, such as pollution and damage to the houses themselves.
Two years ago, villagers found a new pathway for renting their property, with the village committee serving as an intermediary to organize houses for rental.
The Hegezhuang village committee, Cuigezhuang township government and private investors have now formed the Real Life company to manage courtyard houses for villagers. The company funds renovation and then rents out houses for villagers. The once-shabby homes have turned into stylish residences.
"Hegezhuang is on the rural-urban fringe with many migrants, which resulted in hidden social and environmental hazards. Through renovation and rental, villagers' income, social order and the environment have all benefited," said Hu Zhenjian, deputy head of the village.
The village committee invited legal experts to formulate agreements signed with every villager who contracted their homes for rental. The company signs a 10-year leases with owners, which upon expiry, allows villagers to reclaim their renovated homes at no charge if they so desire.
Wu Yuntao, owner of the famed Orchard restaurant, first introduced the idea in 2003, when after returning from abroad, he rented a garden in the village and turned it into the Western restaurant.
With business booming, he realized the small village has much to offer to visitors, especially expats interested in Chinese culture and old-fashioned residences.
He noted Hegezhuang has a charming setting with plentiful greenery, the nearby 798 art district and many other smaller galleries along with bars, restaurants and more than 30 artisan workshops.
Wu then came up with the idea of a cooperative that would secure rights from villagers, renovate their homes and rent them out. The village committee endorsed his idea.
Wu renovated the first courtyard house, named "Yi Yin Yang" community, to convince villagers of the plan. More than 100 have now signed on to the deal, according to the company.
Luca Parigi, marketing manager of the company, said anyone can rent and live in the houses. So far, 11 tenants have moved in.
Villager Liu Changcai is one of the first eight villagers to sign an agreement. He previously divided his 490-sq-m courtyard house into 20 small rooms and received about 30,000 yuan a year in rents. The property now generates about 100,000 yuan annually with the new contract.
Plans call for renovation of all 301 courtyard houses by the end of 2010, when Hegezhuang will resemble a countryside resort with attractive homes, pockets of culture and high-quality restaurants.