From micro flats to macro housing policy, Hong Kong lags far behind New York

Oren Tatcher says Hong Kong and New York both face housing affordability crises amid challenges such as hot money inflows, but the difference is the wealthy Asian city’s total disregard for quality, with ever-shrinking and insanely priced ‘family’ flats

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 June, 2017, 11:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 June, 2017, 10:44am

Five years ago, Michael Bloomberg, then New York mayor, proudly launched a micro-flat rental building project in Manhattan. At 300 sq ft, the units in the pilot scheme were well below the 400 sq ft minimum legal size for New York; Bloomberg thought such flats were necessary to attract the young talent priced out of the city’s housing market. News reports showed Bloomberg walking around a full-size mock-up of the small but sensible floor plan, as if to reassure the public that the flats would meet even the standards of their billionaire mayor.

Our leaders are better at talking about numbers than the actual quality of people’s living quarters

We are unlikely to see Leung Chun-ying or Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor showing off a mock-up of one of our new micro flats, and who can blame them? When it comes to housing, our leaders are better at talking, from a safe distance, about numbers – land sales, stamp duty, units under construction – than about the actual quality of people’s living quarters.

Historically, there are many similarities between New York and Hong Kong housing. Both cities went through boom years when the majority of residents found shelter in shanty towns, tenements and, in the case of Hong Kong, rudimentary public housing.

Living little in the Big Apple

The rise of the middle classes in New York led to improved housing options after the second world war, and Hong Kong saw gradual improvement in the size and quality of government housing, as well as the emergence of middle-class private housing developments, since the 1970s. Both cities are of late going through a housing affordability crisis, with global capital distorting the local marketplace and tilting it heavily towards investor luxury properties.

But this is where the similarities end. New York housing remains problematic, but Hong Kong is in a league of its own. Many parties share the blame: government land policies designed to ensure high revenue through artificial land scarcity; developers who long ago realised they could get away with building poor-quality, undersized units for the mass market; mainland capital, for which Hong Kong is an easy outlet. But the buying public, treating flats as tradeable commodities rather than places to live in, is also at fault. The recent apprehension about micro flats seems to be more about the amount of saleable area (shockingly low) and cost per square foot (shockingly high) than about their quality.

Hong Kong developers rush to build ever smaller homes

In New York, buyers and agents talk about light and views, layout and fit-out. Little wonder that the micro flats produced under the New York scheme, the result of a city-sponsored design competition, have received rave reviews since they became available last year. Markets tend to get what they demand.

The most important difference [with New York] is the lack of alternatives

Perhaps the most important difference is the lack of alternatives – there is little price differentiation within Hong Kong, and no viable hinterland. If you can’t afford Manhattan or Brooklyn, you can still find decent alternatives in other boroughs or the suburbs and nearby towns. But when even modest Yuen Long flats sell for millions, where can you go? Guangdong was once seen as an obvious answer, but the increasingly toxic politics seems to rule that out as an option for many of the younger generation for whom the housing crisis is most acute.

In that light, micro flats represent a refreshing response to market demand: after decades of churning out cookie-cutter “family flats” with two or three tiny bedrooms, Hong Kong developers may be finally recognising a more diverse marketplace, where many singles and young couples wish to have their own place, even if it’s just a small studio. Price may be the main driver, but greater diversity in the city’s housing stock is a welcome development.

Making micro flats liveable is simply a matter of good design

This could also be an opportunity to turn Hong Kong into a global hub for innovative micro-flat design. After all, it is in our DNA, as evidenced not just by the likes of architect Gary Chang Chee-kung – whose ever-changing 344 sq ft flat in North Point became a global sensation in 2009 – but by any number of local carpenters who can turn a useless bay window into a clever multifunctional workstation. If our developers tapped some of this local talent, there is a good chance the next batch of micro flats will be celebrated, rather than deplored. It may even inject some much-needed sense of optimism among a despondent young generation.

Watch: Gary Chang’s shape-shifting micro-flat design

But seeing the potential in micro flats is, admittedly, grasping at straws. The deeper, and tougher, problem is our ever-shrinking and insanely priced family flats. There is a very real risk that these new, single-room flats, clever and efficient as they may be, will in 10 years’ time become family housing, with multigenerational households packed into 200-300 sq ft – a latter-day Shek Kip Mei, albeit with a marble bathroom. Add to that the ongoing scourge of subdivided flats and “cage” dwellings, and Hong Kong’s housing quality represents a totally unacceptable state of affairs in one of the world’s wealthiest cities, and the most significant drag on the city’s overall quality of life.

How small can a Hong Kong apartment get? Emperor takes the crown

To begin to address these problems, we cannot just focus on new housing construction; a thoughtful and innovative set of policies affecting older buildings is long overdue, to encourage not just renovation but also the combination of small units into larger ones, and the adaptive reuse of industrial buildings for residential purposes.

As long as our government’s imagination is limited to stamp duties, land supply and public housing construction – important as those may be – there is little hope for a sustainable, long-term solution to our housing woes.

Oren Tatcher is an architect and a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design