Hong Kong’s shortage of student living space spurs innovation by private landlords and online
With only 60pc of students able to live on university campuses, property owners have spotted a market for hostel accommodation, while student trio have rented flats to convert and launched website to list them
If universities are a microcosm of society, then the shortage of student accommodation reflects the wider housing woes of Hong Kong.
In 2013, for instance, 56,000 students applied for the 33,500 hostel places available at the city’s eight publicly funded universities. This meant four out of every 10 applicants failed to get into a hostel – and an untapped market. Sensing the business opportunity, canny property owners and even a few enterprising students have been converting an array of apartments into tiny units for rent.
According to Evelyn Lam Lo, a third-year student at Polytechnic University, 100 sq ft subdivided flats in the Hung Hom area near the university now rent out for about HK$5,000 per month.
“This is very expensive for a student,” Lam says. In contrast, university hostels charge just about HK$5,000 for an entire semester.
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Lam managed to get a PolyU hostel place only for her first year and had to move back to her family home in Tsuen Wan after that. But the arrangement proved to be too inconvenient, which is why she was searching for an affordable place near the university.
The hostel shortage has substantially driven up the rental market around Pok Fu Lam, the main catchment area for the University of Hong Kong, says Anthony Wong Ka-lam, sales manager at The Belcher’s branch of Hong Kong Property Services.
“If a landlord rents a small flat of about 300 sq ft to a single occupant or a family, he can only charge about HK$10,000 monthly. But if he subdivides it into four units, he can get double rental income,” he explains.
The lack of affordable housing is an issue that has long plagued the administration, with young people at last year’s Occupy protests citing their inability to live independently in an exorbitant property market as one of their main
Addressing the shortage of student accommodation, the government announced a scheme last year to build hostels in Jordan, Mong Kok, Sheung Wan and Tai Po, where rooms would be let out to young people at a discount.
While the hostels are under construction, the private sector has transformed existing property to meet students’ needs.
SynBOX in Station Lane, Hung Hom, for instance, is a tenement building where five of the six storeys have been converted into a hostel providing 71 beds in 15 units (the remaining space has been turned into working studios).
Each unit has its own living room, kitchen and bathroom. Monthly charges for a bed space range from HK$2,800 to HK$3,800, including free Wi-fi.
The residence is only open to people aged from 18 to 35, says Keith Wong Siu-lun, director of Synergy Arcpro, the architectural firm behind the conversion.
Occupancy now stands at about 50 per cent, with university students making up half the tenants. The remainder are newly employed graduates.
“It is another type of sharing economy, with young people sharing living space,” Wong says. “Although] unable to get a hostel place, many students do not want to live in a subdivided flat. They can enjoy a better living environment here.”
Lam is among the residents at SynBOX, where she shares a twin room. Having moved in few months ago, she is enjoying her new digs.
The furnishings are simple, but she has her own desk and wardrobe, much like the rooms at PolyU hostel. “I like it here,” she says.
Arcpro believes there’s a market for such accommodation, which is why it is on the lookout for more tenements in Sai Ying Pun and village houses in Sha Tin that can be turned into hostels, Wong says.
In Hung Hom, the church-run Holy Carpenter Guest House has also recently converted one floor in the seven-storey facility into student accommodation.
The seven rooms provide 15 beds. Students must pay a HK$5,000 deposit and are charged HK$57,600 a year, with the fees to be paid two instalments.
A Holy Carpenter spokesman says the scheme is only open to students, who are welcome to join its church services.
While Hong Kong students’ eligibility for a hostel place is based on how far their family lives away from their university, foreign students are usually guaranteed between one to three years of campus accommodation, depending on the institution.
At Baptist University, for instance, Chinese and foreign students are offered hostel places during the first year. A university spokesman says they support a policy of ensuring that students have at least one year of hostel residence during their four-year undergraduate studies.
But by the second year, the severe shortage of hostel places means many students will have to look outside campus for accommodation. During this academic year, about 1,300 students’ applications for hostel accommodation were rejected.
The university has proposed building a new hostel, which would add places for 1,600 students, and hopes the government will help secured funding for this project, the spokesman says.
Meanwhile, the demand for student accommodation has also inspired ventures by business savvy students such as Gary Lam Chun-ming.
A third-year industrial engineering student at the University of Science and Technology, he and two classmates set up hostel rental service hoome.hk about eight months ago, aimed primarily at students from China.
Lam says he got the idea for the business while looking for off-campus accommodation and discovered that some investors were dividing 500 sq ft village houses into 10 units to rent to students.
“I realised I could do the same,” he says.
So Lam found investors to help with seed funding and, through property agents, rented 30 flats in private housing estates from Festival City in Tai Wai and East Point City in Tseung Kwan O.
Between them, the flats provide 133 beds. Depending on the location and type of flat, students pay between HK$2,000 and HK$6,000, which also covers cleaning twice a week and maintenance of electrical equipment.
The Hoome website provides interior photos of the properties and visitors can browse the selection of flats on offer by gender (there are no co-ed spaces) and proximity to a particular university, and check the facilities.
In moving the process of securing accommodation completely online, Hoome has eliminated the need for Chinese students to physically be in Hong Kong months before academic terms start.
Lam says the partners decided to target Chinese students because of they tend to pay for the full year’s rent up front, giving them greater liquidity. Hong Kong students, in contrast, prefer to pay by the month.
Their business has been so successful that developers and property owners have sought their help in securing Chinese tenants.
“My two partners have graduated and are now working on hoome.com full-time. I will also work on it full-time after I graduate next year,” Lam says.
Even before graduation, the partners have been exploring options to build on their portfolio of properties.
“We are looking at old tenement buildings on Tai Nan Street in Sham Shui Po and want to convert a whole block into a student hostel. We have to expand as demand exceeds supply.”
The Hoome expansion plan looks likely to bear fruit given the influx of Chinese students over the past decade – the number enrolled in Hong Kong rose from 2,800 in 2004 to 11,610 in 2015.
Of the private youth hostels that have emerged in the past year, Campus Hong Kong, which opened in May, perhaps offers the best views.
Looking out to the sea and the Tsing Ma Bridge, it occupies three floors of the 12-storey Bay Bridge Hotel in Tsuen Wan.
The student hostel is made up of 48 units, each for four people, providing a total of 192 beds. Students must put down a HK$2,000 deposit, but do not need to sign a lease as they would for a regular flat.
Monthly fees range from HK$5,500 to HK$6,000. Housekeeping is done twice a week.
As the hostel is operated by the hotel, students can enjoy many of its facilities including swimming pool, gym, sauna, massage pool.
Dennis Yeung Man-to, the hostel’s campus relations officer, says they try to nurture the communal atmosphere of a university.
“We organise activities like pool parties, weekly running competitions ... in November we held Movember for our male students,” he says.
No wonder Campus Hong Kong is fully occupied.