Soaring rent forces Hong Kong district councillor into 'container office'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 November, 2013, 3:21pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 November, 2013, 4:40am

"Cage men", subdivided flat dwellers, street sleepers … now you can add one more term to Hong Kong's lodging lexicon - "container man" politicians.

District councillor Stanley Ho Ngai-kam has an office that sets him apart from the other 506 council members. He operates out of a cargo container.

When Ho, 28, was elected two years ago to represent 20,000 residents of the private residential complex Heng Fa Chuen, he could not afford the rents in the neighbourhood. He was forced to open an office in an industrial building in faraway Chai Wan.

So the Eastern District councillor came up with an out-of-the-box solution. Ho, of the Federation of Trade Unions, decided to set up a "container office" last June. He discussed the idea with officials from the home affairs and lands departments.

Ho managed to lease a 150-square-foot plot by the road in Shing Tai Road for HK$1,200 a month. He pays a further HK$3,800 a month for the container.

Ho moved into his "office" last month, and the arrangement allows him to keep in touch with his voters while still balancing the books.

The salary of a district councillor is about HK$22,000 a month. On top of that, they receive HK$304,704 a year for rent, barely enough for a small office in a public housing estate.

The government has proposed raising the rent to HK$408,000. The proposal, expected to be approved by the Legislative Council next month, would take effect next year. The authorities said it could help the 98 per cent of district councillors who are struggling in the face of runaway office rents.

Ho certainly backs the idea. He said the government should have done more to find office space for district councillors. His container office is only a temporary solution - it has its share of problems.

"It lacks security and it's rather small. It can be quite hot in the summer as well, even with air conditioning," Ho said.

In Yuen Long, Tin Shui Wai district councillor Roy Chan Sze-ching is preparing a similar move. Next month he moves into a 160 sq ft portable storage space made of prefabricated metal and glass fibre on the pavement opposite Tin Shui Wai MTR station.

Chan had tried to get an office in nearby shopping malls but was turned down by owners for "commercial reasons".

Like Ho, Chan had to get an office in Yuen Long town centre - a 30-minute walk from his constituents.

"I came up with my plan last year but the development bureau only backed it in March."

Chan is paying the Lands Department about HK$1,000 a month for the site, and a further HK$4,700 a month to the company that rents him the storage shed.

While their stories are testimony to the creativity and resilience of district councillors, Chan and Ho both say it is not something that the government should be proud of.

"This cannot be a long-term solution," Chan said.

"I'm doing this only because the government has failed to help me. It's not good for officials to make a councillor experiment like I have had to."