Affordable living in Hong Kong becomes ever more elusive

Peter Kammerer says Hongkongers who put up with high rents and ever shabbier flats can't help but envy public housing generosity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 7:42pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 May, 2014, 2:03am

My rule of thumb when renting a flat is to spend no more than a quarter of my salary. This has served me well over the years, although with rent increases vastly outstripping pay rises, my quality of living has fallen. The consequence has been that the places I call home have been getting older and dingier. What I have come to call an adequate standard of living, others think of as a slum.

No wonder, then, that I am jealous of public housing tenants living at the Kai Tak redevelopment. Two public estates have recently opened, Kai Ching and Tak Long, providing housing for 26,000 people. The flats are typically small - between 151 sq ft and 405 sq ft - meaning cramped conditions for the singles and families living there. But what the homes lack in space is made up for with low rents, harbour views and an ever-increasing number of facilities.

The area is not easily accessible, but that will change in a few years when the Kai Tak MTR station opens. Shops and restaurants located between the two estates are plentiful, although not flashy. As the cruise terminal at the other side of the development expands and private housing complexes, government offices, a hotel, children's hospital, sports centre and entertainment and commercial projects take shape, the district's appeal will grow. What evolves will be the driving force for a revitalisation of a part of town that needs new life.

For people fortunate enough to have agreed to move into public flats at Kai Tak, all this can be had for a song. The flats being new, monthly rents range between HK$900 and HK$2,420, a small premium above Housing Authority averages for such floor areas and number of occupants. All that has to be added are utility charges; public housing tenants pay no management fees or rates. There are strict caps to qualify, though; single people can earn no more than HK$9,670 a month and have assets not exceeding HK$221,000 and the figures for a family of four are HK$23,910 and HK$455,000.

These are not big incomes, but wise spending can lead to a comfortable lifestyle. Private housing residents in nearby Kowloon City and Kowloon Bay, where rents are four to five times higher, have every reason to be envious. The more the fabric of the district changes as Kai Tak develops, the greater the envy will grow. Even from my middle-class income vantage, I am jealous; knowing how easy it can be to abuse the public housing system once inside, the full harbour views for some, new buildings and pristine environment are exceedingly attractive.

At the heart of the matter is that much of Hong Kong's middle- and lower-class housing stock is substandard. Poor maintenance and insufficient government oversight means that too many people live in conditions that are unacceptable elsewhere. Better standards are available, but at unaffordable prices for the majority. For me, that means a brand new public housing estate that in a few years will be a prime location is exceedingly attractive.

Developers and landlords rightly think in terms of income, not affordability. That leaves but two options: to await the day when the Urban Renewal Authority puts Hong Kong needs and wants ahead of turning a profit, or finding a benevolent landlord.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post