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Hong Kong housing

Appallingly small living spaces put Hong Kong to shame

The most vulnerable in society not only have to pay high rents for tiny homes, but are often ignored by a government sitting on a mountain of cash

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 October, 2016, 1:35am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 October, 2016, 1:35am

If there is anything that puts Hong Kong to shame, it is the appallingly tiny spaces that so many people have to live in. Despite the government’s pledge to provide affordable housing, many are still living in caged bed spaces, partitioned units and rooftop shacks. The situation sits oddly with our claim to be Asia’s world city.

The infamous subdivided flats – in which a single unit is carved up into multiple living spaces with little regard to fire and structural safety – is not new. But when the squalid environment of such “homes” was the subject of a photo exhibition, the images – some of which appeared on the back page of this newspaper recently – still came as a shock.

Some 200,000 people are estimated to be living in such inhuman conditions. In case of fire, these units are potential death traps.

Hong Kong’s poorest squeezed as rents for tiny subdivided flats rise at double rate for other homes

Adding to the woes is that these living spaces are by no means cheap. For instance, a 70 sq ft cubicle in Tsuen Wan can cost HK$3,850 a month, or HK$55 per square foot.

The rent increase in recent years has also gone over the roof. A study by a concerned group found that rents for such subdivided units jumped 13.6 per cent over just one year, almost double that of other private flats. That such wretched dwellings can fetch such high rents is a blot on this city.

Tenants of subdivided flats are usually low-income earners waiting in queue for public rental units. Ironically, they are given little support or protection, making them one of the most vulnerable groups in society. The growing demand for such units and the lengthening queue for public housing have given unscrupulous landlords even more rope to charge exorbitant rents.

Coffin cubicles, caged homes and subdivisions … life inside Hong Kong’s grim low income housing

The government talks of tougher enforcement. This includes prosecuting those who operate subdivided premises that do not meet statutory safety standards. Belated as it is, the move is a step in the right direction. But it may take some time before the situation can be brought under control.

The real challenge, of course, is resettlement.

With as many as 88,000 subdivided flats across the city, it would be unrealistic to shut them down all at once. Unless sufficient public rental units can be provided, any drastic step would only backfire.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has rightly made affordable housing a top policy priority, with an ambitious goal to produce 460,000 flats in 10 years. Commendable as it is, the target means little if a sizeable share of the population continues to live in shabby dwellings. The government needs a more coherent strategy to phase out living spaces that do not conform to legal standards.