Families struggling to make ends meet face a rent rise of up to 50 per cent when a scheme to shield them from exorbitant rents ends next week. About 58 per cent of tenants helped by the scheme, mainly living in small rooms or shared flats in old blocks, will have to put aside more than 40 per cent of their income for rent. Watchdog groups last night warned that uncontrolled rents might be higher than mortgage payments while the Legco housing panel called for special allowances for hardship tenants. The scheme, revised in 1993, bans landlords of 15,000 premises built before 1981 from raising rents by more than 20 per cent over two years. The original plan was to end it in 1996 but it was delayed as the then Legco wanted a slower phasing out. Officials said the Government was against further delay because it distorted the free market and was unfair to landlords. A Rating and Valuation Department survey showed domestic rents dropped 27 per cent this year and a further 10 per cent drop was expected next year. Deputy Commissioner Wong Chun-shiu estimated 70 per cent of tenants in controlled premises could escape an increase next year because market rents would then be similar to prevailing controlled rents. But 1,558 families will have to pay up to $4,372 more every month. In 2000, 1,504 tenants will have to pay up to $5,239 extra. Hongkong People's Council on Public Housing Policy chief secretary Virginia Ip Chiu-ping said it would lead to an 'absurd' situation where 'families renting private flats pay $9,000 for rent, while those who can buy government-subsidised flats only need to pay $4,000 or so for mortgages'. Panellist and Democrat James To Kun-sun called for a special rent subsidy to be given to those awaiting public housing. Acting Secretary for Housing Leung Chin-man said hardship families could apply for public assistance. The Government considered it a suitable time to abolish rent controls. But Ho Hei-wah, director of the Society for Community Organisation, said the official figures were misleading. While rents for bigger flats were falling, he said those for bed spaces of partitioned rooms were rising because of growing demand by new immigrants and jobless people. He said rents for partitioned rooms in Shamshuipo had risen from $2,000 to almost $3,000 over the year.