Hong Kong must do more to ensure adequate living space for its citizens
Twenty years after the colonial government got rid of the eyesores of temporary shelters for people waiting for public housing, the problem of substandard living conditions has returned with insidious vengeance, hidden behind the walls of shoebox-sized subdivided flats, often in breach of fire or building safety standards.
It has been compounded by two scandals. In 2013, the discovery of bogus answers given to census collectors prompted the government to commission an independent study into subdivided flats that raised the number of people living in them that year to 171,000 from 69,400 in 2012. And now another independent study has revealed that the average living space per person for family and single tenants of subdivided flats has dropped from 67.6 square feet in 2013 to 47.8 square feet. At the same time, the average ratio of rent to income has jumped from 29 per cent to 41 per cent.
There is no statutory minimum living space. But we do not need a law to say that basic rights to housing are being violated here, when the government itself sets a minimum of 70 sq ft of space per person in public housing. In fact, the average living space of a public housing tenant is 140 square feet, according to Housing Authority figures published in 2014.
There should be no tolerance for subdivided flats in an affluent society like Hong Kong. But to ban them is easy; to deal with the consequences is not, as tens of thousands of people would be rendered homeless.
The absence of a statutory standard for living space does not mean the government should do nothing. There are still rules on structural and fire safety for residential buildings. The government should step up law enforcement. Those which cannot fulfil the legal requirements should not be tolerated.
The ultimate solution to our housing conundrum lies in adequate land supply for more private and public flats, without which affordable housing will remain an elusive goal.