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Hong Kong housing

Charitable landlords reject pressure to subdivide, team up with Hong Kong NGO to provide cheap, liveable homes for poor

Renovation effort on flats that could have been carved up into cubicle homes is part of plan to get families out of demeaning living conditions while they wait for public housing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 November, 2017, 9:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 November, 2017, 11:46am

It’s hard to imagine that a 50-year-old flat in a dilapidated, walk-up building could be a highly sought-after property in Hong Kong.

But the renovated interior and brightly lit, air-conditioned rooms in this home, along with the separate toilet and spacious kitchen, make it an ideal base for any of the thousands of poor families in the city squeezed into run-down, subdivided cubicles.

At least 30 low-income families are vying to live in the 550 sq ft, three-bedroom flat in Mong Kok, Kowloon, which will ideally be shared by two or three couples or small families.

The flat was renovated for HK$300,000 by non-profit group the Society for Community Organisation. It is one of a handful of repurposed old properties designed to house families in the queue for public housing, until they are allocated a flat.

Tenants will be charged no more than a quarter of their household income, or roughly HK$3,000 a month.

In Kowloon, home to half of the city’s subdivided flats, a partitioned cubicle could go for almost double that price.

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The society’s director, Ho Hei-wah, said he hoped their “transitional social housing service” would make a difference to those often forced to endure cramped conditions for years before they get into public housing.

“We hope that improving their living environment can lead to a better quality of life, so it can give them motivation to make improvements in their own lives,” Ho said.

Such shared flats are rare in a city where expensive homes and a shortage of housing make it lucrative for landlords to partition their flats into tiny cubicles, which often violate fire and building safety regulations.

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The society has finished renovating the flat, and started looking for suitable tenants, whom it hopes can move in in December.

That comes after the city’s largest social service provider, the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, recently announced a plan to provide 500 affordable flats as temporary housing for 1,000 poor households.

Ho said some 30 other flats were in the pipeline, but not all of them were likely to be suitable for the project, depending on their location and condition.

“We are only a small NGO. It’s very challenging for us to make this a large-scale project, and the pace will be very slow. Our aim is to prove to the government that social housing can work in Hong Kong, and that they should be the ones taking charge,” he said.

In last month’s policy address, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor pledged to explore the idea of converting industrial buildings into transitional housing.

But with almost 200,000 people living in some 88,000 subdivided flats, the staggering demand for adequate housing means that NGOs have had to step in.

Ho said the project would not be possible without the help of landlords willing to lease out their flats at lower than market rate, or even for just a token fee.

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Landlord Abel Li Yui-kwong, who inherited a flat from his grandmother, said relatives had pressured him to divide the place into individual cubicles for rent.

“They said it would be a waste of the flat, but I don’t think it’s suitable for people to live long-term in such unpleasant conditions, so I would have just left it empty if it wasn’t for this scheme,” Li said.

Li leased out the entire flat to the society for HK$5,000 per month, a quarter of what he would earn if he converted it into subdivided flats.

“I don’t see what I’m doing as charity. The society renovates my flat, I get a stable income, and at the same time it can help people. It’s a win-win solution for everyone,” he said.