Hong Kong’s new housing policy: if you can’t beat ’em, just join ’em

Yonden Lhatoo objects to the precedent the government is setting by legalising the highly questionable practice of subdividing flats to rent out to the needy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 July, 2017, 3:42pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 July, 2017, 7:26pm

I find myself constantly picking my jaw off the floor when it comes to the dystopian disgrace that is the state of housing in this city, and every outrageous new trend associated with it.

The latest shocker comes courtesy of our new housing minister, Frank Chan Fan, who is looking to effectively legalise the abhorrent practice of subdividing flats instead of condemning it.

Hundreds of thousands of low-income earners, who wouldn’t be able to afford Hong Kong’s ridiculous private housing rents if they sold their kidneys, are crammed into mostly dilapidated tenement and industrial buildings where already space-starved flats are partitioned into tiny, self-contained cubicles masquerading as human habitats.

It’s not just in Sham Shui Po: Hong Kong’s cubicle flats reach the fancy heights of Mid-Levels

Take the case of 12-year-old Wong Chak-ming, who lives in one such cubicle measuring just 30 sq ft with his single mother in Sham Shui Po, the city’s poorest district. He sleeps, eats and studies in a space that can just about fit a bunk bed and a little desk lit up by a single fluorescent tube.

Their “coffin home” is one of five units carved out of a 500 sq ft flat, and they share a kitchen and toilet with four other families.

What sort of message does it send out to unscrupulous landlords and developers?

Apart from the obvious hygiene horrors and inhumane conditions that tenants are subjected to in such dwellings, they are also stuck in fire traps, as safety standards are flung out of the window by money-grubbing landlords.

It’s all illegal, of course, and highly objectionable in this would-be “world city” of ours where the wealth gap is at a record high.

Our government hasn’t even bothered to do any counting since 2015, when it estimated that nearly 200,000 Hongkongers were living in 88,000 subdivided flats – not including the thousands more living illegally in industrial buildings. The trend has ballooned since then, in tandem with the exponential growth in property prices over the last couple of years.

Chan said he was “emotionally moved” when he saw first-hand the plight of coffin home residents during a public relations visit to Sham Shui Po over the weekend. He told them that he himself had lived in a subdivided flat when he was a child.

So, if you can’t beat ’em, you might as well join ’em, minister?

In Chan’s defence, his is a “better than nothing” approach, given that people are languishing for as long as six years in the queue for government-built subsidised housing. While his predecessor refused to even consider this sardine-can option, Chan has been listening to the likes of concern group Society for Community Organisation, which has, on its own initiative, already started renting out subdivided flats at below-market rates to needy families.

The housing minister wants to roll out a pilot scheme through a crowdfunding drive within the year, enlisting non-governmental organisations to operate officially approved subdivided rental flats. The idea is to provide safer, cleaner and cheaper coffin homes.

Hong Kong welfare groups might be enlisted to run approved cut-price subdivided flats

I get it, this is the new style of governance we’ve been promised, with ministers willing to think outside the old bureaucratic box.

But new thinking should not entail resurrecting or legitimising old evils. And at the end of the day, that’s what subdivided housing is – a social evil, a morally reprehensible by-product of greed and apathy. What sort of message does it send out to unscrupulous landlords and developers already putting profit before people? You give them an inch like this and they’ll grab miles.

Our new housing minister is actually an electrical engineer by trade. Oh well, at least he’ll have the short-circuit and fuse-box fires covered in these officially sanctioned pigeon-holes for humans. Better than nothing?

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post