To prepare for his wedding, Zhong Qichao last year bought a two-bedroom apartment along the coast of Lianyungang, a third-tier city in northeastern China.

It almost took a village to come up with the 300,000 yuan ($44,500) in down payment—about 45 times his monthly salary. The 27-year-old restaurant manager pooled his own earnings and the entire savings of his farmer parents. He borrowed from his relatives and took a loan from a bank for the rest. Since he closed the deal last March, he had spent a third of his paycheck on mortgage payments every month. It was a stretch for him financially, but he knew that all would be OK when he moved with his new wife into their new flat overlooking the sea in May next year, when the development is set to complete.

Unfortunately for Zhong, things didn’t go as planned. In November, construction of his new home, part of a 32-building project called Yuelongfu, ground to a halt as the developer ran out of cash.

Eight months onward, bare concrete frames and exposed steel bars stand in the place of what should be a luxury residential complex surrounded by lush greenery, as Zhong had seen in rendered images. Wild grass now grows over the abandoned plot and rainwater has flooded the underground carpark, turning it into a pond. 

Unwilling to marry their daughter to a man without a shelter of his own, his fiancée’s parents called off the wedding. “Now I have no house, no wife, and twenty years of loans,” Zhong told VICE World News. 

Zhong is among millions of homeowners whose futures, financial or otherwise, hang in the balance as China’s troubled developers fail to deliver on the biggest investment of most people’s lives. Only six in ten homes pre-sold between 2013 and 2020 have been delivered, according to analysts at Nomura. 

Unsure if his home will ever be finished, Zhong stopped paying his mortgage earlier this month, joining hundreds of thousands of disgruntled homeowners in a growing financial revolt.

“We have reluctantly come to this as we don’t see any hope.”

The boycott action has spread to 321 properties across 113 cities by Sunday, according to a crowdsourced document on GitHub titled “WeNeedHome,” affecting up to 2 trillion yuan ($296 billion) in bank loans. A further escalation could deal another blow to China’s crumbling real estate industry and pandemic-stricken economy.

The mortgage boycott followed trouble at some of China’s biggest property developers. For decades, these companies went on a debt-fueled building spree, betting on ever-rising home prices and robust economic growth that allows more and more middle-class families to pursue their dream of owning an apartment.

But many would-be homeowners’ dreams began to unravel last year when China cracked down on indebted developers to reduce financial risks in a sector that accounts for a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product.

Property giants including Evergrande, Kaisa, and Sunac have since defaulted on their bonds as they struggled to borrow even more to repay their mountains of debts. 

Zhong’s development is one of several projects owned or partly owned by the Hengtai Group that have stalled since November. The company denied rumors of bankruptcy then but admitted it was facing “unprecedented difficulties.”

Local government officials in February said they would find another developer to take over the project, but no such deal has materialized.

Like many homebuyers, Zhong took part in the joint action as a last resort. “We have reluctantly come to this as we don’t see any hope,” Zhong and 400 owners of the Yuelongfu project wrote in a joint letter to the developer, banks, and authorities.

Zhong struggled to pay both his mortgage and rent, and was racking up more debts on his credit card. If he defaulted on his mortgage, the bank would be entitled to seizing his property.

“This scrap of a home is all I have, they can take it if they want,” Zhong said. “I don’t care about my credit rating, when I can’t even get by.”

Elsewhere in the country, some frustrated homebuyers saw no option but to make a home out of the unfinished, skeleton structures that have no electricity and water supply. Since March, more than 300 homeowners have settled into the concrete frames of Yihefang, a residential complex in the central Chinese city of Xi’an that stood unfinished for nearly a decade and whose developer filed for bankruptcy in 2018, local media reported. Residents make do with portable light and gas stoves. As the 21-story building has no elevator, some walk up more than a dozen flights of stairs in the dark every day.

Chen Zhiwu, a professor of finance at the University of Hong Kong, said the growing number of failed projects is driven by several factors, including an economic slump compounded by recurring lockdowns under Beijing’s stringent zero-COVID policy. 

“What has been happening in reality is that the government has been playing a bigger role in economic and financial decision-making and causing more and more distortions. Ultimately, those distortions have accumulated and now there are cracks on many fronts,” Chen said.

Though the mortgages that risk going bad account for just a fraction of all outstanding home loans, some economists have warned that the financial woes in the real estate sector could destabilize the broader economy.

“The last thing any property market needs is bad news that will entrench the perception that property markets are no longer something to be invested in,” Heron Lim, an economist at Moody’s Analytics, told VICE World News. The mortgage suspension would test the resilience of the financial system, while declining house prices could be a drag on the economy, he added. 

To mitigate the damage, China’s banking regulator last week pledged “active credit support” for beleaguered developers, while some officials proposed a grace period on mortgage payments. Reuters reported on Monday that the Chinese government will launch a fund of 80 billion yuan ($12 billion) to bankroll unfinished projects and rent them out to individuals.

In the meantime, the government has sought to stem unrest by silencing frustrated homebuyers and censoring analysis and posts about the mortgage revolt online.

A WeChat group Zhong shared with nearly five hundred homeowners was suspended over “legal violations.” Some fellow homeowners saw videos of their petitions removed from Douyin, China’s version of TikTok. Zhong himself received calls from the local police, ordering him to take down the clips in which he aired out his grievances. And local reporters and television stations have refused to cover their hardship, Zhong said.

“No one is willing to speak out for us,” Zhong said. “You only ever see positive things in the news and never the bad ones. It’s as though we live in the utopia of our own imagination.” 

Like many other Chinese, Zhong saw owning a property not just as a safe form of investment, but also as a milestone in life. The ordeal, however, has crushed his middle-class dream. “If you allow me to choose again, I will never buy a house. I will never get married and I will never have kids. Just surviving is difficult enough for those of us at the bottom of society,” Zhong said.

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