'My flat is 30 sq ft and infested with bugs': Poor forced into dismal housing shows need for rent control

Low-income Hongkongers left vulnerable by complete lack of contracts or high rent increases by landlords, survey finds

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 9:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 6:03pm

To Sham Shui Po resident Mr Yeung, the idea of a permanent home is like a distant dream. Rent increases have forced him to move three times in the past year.

The 56-year-old lives on government welfare of about HK$4,000 a month and budgets about half that for his housing. That tends to get him a 30 to 40 sq ft cubicle, windowless and infested with bedbugs.

“The so-called home is more like a store room where I put my belongings,” said Yeung, who once found a unit with fewer bedbugs but couldn’t afford the HK$2,400 rent.

“The bed bugs were so bad in the past two places that I often preferred to spend the night at McDonald’s or internet cafes.”

Yet even for such modest facilities, Yeung is frequently evicted as landlords increase the rent beyond his means, forcing him to search for a new home, sometimes with as little as a week’s notice.

Yeung is far from alone. While property prices have fallen by about 5 per cent from their peak in March last year, the average cost of renting keeps increasing.

The bed bugs were so bad in the past two places that I often preferred to spend the night at McDonald’s or internet cafes
Mr Yeung, resident

Recent surveys by pressure groups have found that for those on low incomes the problem is particularly acute – and is exacerbated by landlords who offer only short-term contracts, or fail to enter any contract whatsoever.

In a survey of about 300 low-income families living in rented, sub-divided or substandard apartments across the city, about 90 per cent hoped for rent control measures to be introduced.

Over 70 per cent of respondents were on a waiting list for public housing and more than 80 per cent had applied for help from the Community Care Fund.

The Alliance for Concerning Grassroots Housing Rights, one of the pressure groups that conducted the survey between December and mid-February, said the rental contracts of more than half of the respondents were for less than a year.

And some landlords had refused to enter any contractual agreement. Almost half of tenants said they were given less than a month’s notice to move out.

The lack of clear laws mean landlords are not sanctioned when they enter into agreements, without a contract, with tenants, the group said.

The groups want the government to make rental contracts compulsory. They also want rent control measures to keep increases in line with inflation.

The Housing and Transport Bureau is said to be studying the feasibility of introducing rental-control measures in Hong Kong, although no details are available and the alliance is demanding that the government make the details public.

Other groups in the alliance include social worker and lawmaker Cheung Kwok-che and the Alliance Concerning Comprehensive Social Security Assistance for low-income residents.

For his most recent eviction, Yeung received a week’s notice. Thanks to social workers he did not end up living on the streets. He has so far been unable to stay at any flat longer than a year. Once he stayed only a month.