Spirit of Hong Kong
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Spirit of Hong Kong

Social enterprise advocate obtains flats and rents them out to Hong Kong's less fortunate

Light Be chief executive Ricky Yu obtains homes and then rents them out to people like single mothers who cannot afford private rents

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 June, 2015, 4:28am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 March, 2016, 4:41pm

The small flat off Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan is light and airy. A little bike and other toys for a tot are neatly stored against the living room wall. At the back, there are two bedrooms with bunk beds and on the other side a corridor leads down to a kitchen and a bathroom. This is a renovated home in an old tenement building.

Single mum Wendy - not her real name - shares one bedroom with her daughter, 14, and son, three. In the other bedroom are another single mother and her daughter. For Wendy and her children, it's a chance to find a base, without worrying that she can't afford the rent. It's a peaceful, modern place for the family.

"Government public housing isn't flexible," says Ricky Yu Wai-yip, the chief executive of Light Be, a social enterprise housing programme launched in 2012.

People receive public housing through allocation after queueing up, he says. They can't decide when and where they get it, which is why affordable housing still has a role to play for residents on the breadline.

Around five years ago, Yu, 47, was a general manager with Amway Hong Kong, so while he had business sense, he had no connection with the property market or social welfare. "I knew nothing about real estate," he says cheerfully. "Which meant I had no boundaries, because I knew nothing."

He had seen the subdivided flats, which landlords often used to exploit vulnerable families and single people by multiplying the amount of rent garnered from one flat. Yu wanted to take the exploitation out of that model, ensuring the flats shared were light, airy, safe and quiet with affordable rent for the tenants - providing a sanctuary or a breathing space for three years, after which tenants have the chance to move on into other forms of shared housing or public housing.

Wendy, 40, is divorced. Her ex-husband was unable to provide for his children due to illness. Her social worker referred her to Yu. "All our clients must be referred by social workers as they know who needs an apartment most," Yu says.

Yu has been nominated by non-governmental organisation Social Ventures Hong Kong for the Lion Rock Entrepreneur Award of this year's Spirit of Hong Kong Awards, organised by the South China Morning Post.

Yu began with one flat just over two years ago. He now has 30, catering to more than 150 people in 60 families. Yu enters into negotiations with compassionate landlords, who are prepared to offer cheap leases.

Often they are units that have been inherited or are bought for investment purposes. Yu then factors in costs and a small margin and the flats are then leased to needy tenants. "It's an enterprise with a social purpose," says Yu, a father of three.

For Wendy, it has been a chance to rebuild her life with her children. Previously she and her children shared an old flat with an elderly woman in Sheung Wan, she says, but the rent went up and Wendy was unable to afford it from her social security payments. So she and the children lived with her former mother-in-law, with whom she still has a good relationship, squeezing all of them into a public housing flat meant for one person.

"It was very difficult for the children to sleep there," she says. "Now my son has a chance to play in the living room and there are parks nearby. The only thing is that I need to go further to get to the wet market as Central is expensive. I just buy cheap fish for HK$15 when I take my son to kindergarten in Sai Ying Pun in the mornings."

Wendy has applied for public housing. She may also link up with other Light Be tenants to find other shared housing.

Yu is expanding his activities. He has obtained six flats in Wing Lee Street in Sheung Wan through the Urban Renewal Authority. His next plan is to renovate a former building for factory staff in Tsuen Wan. "We'll lease the whole building," he says. "It's vacant staff quarters and the factory owner decided not to renew his land lease with the government. The government will lease it to us at a nominal rent and we will renovate it. There will be 45 units."

Yu has a team of partners including lawyers, architects and surveyors who volunteer their services for his ventures. The tenants also receive training from NGOs, says Yu, and volunteers provide extra tuition to children to supplement their school work.

With the three years they can live in a Light Be flat, Yu says, people have a chance to pick themselves up and start afresh. Wendy's daughter is in an excellent secondary school, he says, and works hard at her studies. It's a chance for them to lift themselves out of poverty and on to a better life.