Society has a role to play in resolving HK's housing crisis

Decent, affordable homes should be a right, but this will only happen if all of society supports it

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 August, 2012, 5:32am

Yesterday's Sunday Morning Post published my article about living in a subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po for a week.

Even before I moved in, I knew that the point of the experience would be to understand just how different it is to live there for a short period than to stay trapped in such conditions for years.

I was born in Hong Kong, I grew up in Vancouver and I studied in New York - meaning that I've lived in three of the most expensive cities in the world.

But even in Vancouver and New York, people who work hard, even for a minimum wage, can at least afford to live in places with very basic levels of security and hygiene.

In Hong Kong, China's most economically competitive city, the shameful truth is that people who often work in dangerous, backbreaking jobs, can only afford to rent cage homes, rooftop huts or windowless, squalid subdivided flats that are vulnerable to fires, choking heat and infestations of cockroaches, fleas, rats and other vermin.

One night during my stay in Sham Shui Po, I could not stand to sleep on my mouldy pillow, so I spent the night outdoors. I met many people in the neighbourhood who would also rather spend the whole night on the streets or at a McDonald's restaurant than be in their own homes.

The shortage of safe, hygienic low-income housing is the most urgent social issue in the city. About 189,500 people are on the waiting list for public housing, while the Social Welfare Department only subsidises five temporary shelters to serve the whole city.

Besides creating more comprehensive social assistance programmes, the government needs to accelerate the building of public housing, reform the housing market and raise the minimum wage so that more people can find safe and affordable housing.

Last week, I talked to a young mother in Shek Kip Mei. Her family's 150 sq ft subdivided flat, for which they pay HK$3,500 a month, fills with smoke every time she cooks because of the lack of windows.

She and her husband won't be able to afford to keep her children in school when they get older - which will likely mean that the cycle of poverty will continue.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's administration seems to recognise the need to improve this dismal situation before it worsens. Last week, the government said it would seek to expand the supply of public housing.

But the responsibility does not just lie with the government. Finding lasting solutions to alleviate poverty is something that all of society needs to support.

While we criticise corruption on the mainland, many of us may not know that the wealth gap in Hong Kong is larger than those in most mainland cities. In fact, it's larger than most developed cities.

To truly stand apart as a free and independent society, one of the best ways is to ensure that everyone in Hong Kong can benefit from the same treasured rights and freedoms.