Outdated government policy on rent subsidies is forcing the poor to live in inhumane conditions, according to one welfare recipient who is preparing to take the government to court to change the system.
Joel Suen Mo is calling for a judicial review of policy on rent subsidies for recipients of the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance scheme (CSSA).
Suen, who is applying for legal aid to take his fight to court, said the rent subsidy policy was outdated and was not enough to cover private housing rent.
He said it was barely enough to pay for a "coffin room" in a cheap suburb.
Rent subsidies for single welfare recipients who live in private housing were cut from HK$1,500 to HK$1,230 in 2003. The top rate was raised to HK$1,335 this year.
Since the 1990s the rates have been calculated as being 1.5 times the rent of public housing of the same size in the same district.
But figures from the Rating and Valuation Department showed that average rents for Kowloon flats of less than 131 sq ft rose by 113 per cent between July 2003 and July this year.
Real estate agency Midland Realty's figure for the average rent for the 100 most popular second-hand private residential estates increased 110 per cent in the same period.
"The subsidy is only enough to rent a coffin room or bed space, at best, in Sham Shui Po," said Suen. "And if you've been there, you would realise those aren't humanely liveable."
The 39-year-old has been receiving welfare since February last year, when his deteriorating health and a leg injury stopped him from trying to find work.
As well as a HK$2,800 welfare and handicap assistance monthly payment, he also gets the full HK$1,335 rent subsidy.
Suen lives in a space of less than 70 square feet in a subdivided flat in Fuk Wing Street, Sham Shui Po. It costs him HK$1,700, plus about HK$300 per month in utility bills.
Suen said his flat was considered reasonably priced, as a bedspace in the same area - the only accommodation the government subsidy covers - would cost about HK$1,300. But to afford his rent, Suen has to cut down on other costs and mainly lives on bread and noodles. He eats no meat at all.
"They [the government] had made a promise that the subsidy would cover our rent, but it doesn't for most of us," Suen said.
Wong Chi-yuen, community organiser of the Society for Community Organisation, a local NGO, said the rent subsidies for about 60 per cent of welfare recipients' did not cover their rent. "Now, private housing rent is way more than 1.5 times public housing rent," Wong said. "The policy needs to be adjusted."
Wong hoped that the case would increase dialogue in the community.
"The government should increase rent allowances, and also - even more importantly - review the existing mechanism for adjusting them," he said.
A Social Welfare Department spokesman said the allowance covered the rent of 90 per cent of CSSA recipients.
He said it would continue to monitor the situation and if the rent index rose, it would adjust the subsidy according to the established mechanism.