Destined for life in tiny cage homes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 April, 2011, 12:00am


Hong Kong is known around the world as a free and prosperous society. Grinding poverty is uncommon here, yet that doesn't mean no one suffers from want.

Owning their own home is beyond the reach of many citizens because of sky-rocketing property prices and a limited supply of public housing.

'The government's claim of [there being only] a three-year waiting time for public housing does not illustrate the entire picture,' said Sze Lai-shan, from the Society for Community Organisation (Soco). 'People who are single and new immigrants are not included on the list. There are around 110,000 families waiting for public housing - and that does not include 40,000 single people and 10,000 new-immigrant families.'

The housing authority plans to build 15,000 units on average in the next five years. That will hardly solve the problem, Sze said.

'Including the new units and around 5,000 units more that are returned every year, the annual number of available units is around 20,000, but there are more than 160,000 families waiting for them,' he explained.

Low-income families on the waiting list who cannot afford to rent an apartment are often forced to stay in dismal cage homes or cubicles. The government issues licences to cage home owners, but the criteria for the licence are bizarre: no more than 12 people can share a toilet and corridors must meet fire safety standards.

According to government figures from 2008, some 100,000 people in the city live in cage homes and cubicles.

'Government officials should come and experience what it is like living in a bed space or a cubicle with 12 people sharing a toilet,' Sze noted. 'Many rooms have no window and ventilation is poor. Cubicle dwellers often have less than 3sq metres of living space per person. There are many cage homes with no licence and so remain unknown to the government. I don't think the government really cares.'

Applicants believe they can shorten the time they need to wait for public housing if they are willing to move to outlying areas.

Lau Wah-keung is a retiree who lives with his son at a public housing estate in Tin Shui Wai. He needed to wait only eight months for an apartment. But there's a downside to living in the area.

'The people living here are low-income workers, working on jobs such as cleaning and security,' he said. 'They are not able to afford the high cost of travelling back and forth to the city. Some of them work 12 hours a day and have to spend another two hours commuting.'

Mr Wong lives with his wife in a cubicle on the fifth floor of a walk-up building in Sham Shui Po.

'I am a construction worker in the city,' he said. 'If I was assigned to live in places like Tin Shui Wai or Tung Chung, how would I be supposed to go to work?' he said.

Instead of having to commute from a remote public housing unit, he decided to stay in a cubicle.

The housing authority has said it would boost public housing by building 60 per cent of the new flats in urban areas such as Kowloon City, Kwun Tong, Wong Tai Sin and Sham Shui Po. Another 30 per cent of construction would focus on areas like Kwai Tsing, Sha Tin and Tseung Kwan O. The rest will be in the New Territories.

Sze welcomes the move, but says the real solution would be to build plenty more units.

Paavo Monkkonen, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong's Department of Urban Planning and Design, notes that the problem is not just a question of supply but also income. 'It is a fact that land in the city is costly and public housing must be built on cheaper land in places far from the city,' he said. 'If the wages of low-income people remain at current levels, they will never be able to live in rural areas and continue working in the city. That's not possible for people making HK$30 an hour.'

One suggested course of action would be to create new jobs in rural areas. But Monkkonen thinks that may not be feasible.

'It is a phenomenon in all post-industrial societies that people move to urban centres from outlying areas,' he said. Once there, many find employment in low-skilled jobs such as cleaning and security.

Monkkonen said that if the government wanted to encourage people to relocate to rural areas, it would have to provide further incentives.

'The government could issue bigger units in rural areas to encourage people to move there,' he said. 'It will then be up to the people to decide whether they want to live in cheaper and bigger units in more remote places or stay closer to the city while living in dearer and smaller units.'