Hong Kong needs another solution to housing the poor
With thousands crammed into subdivided units because they cannot afford a proper home, one is left to ask what such a wealthy city is going to do about it
Intergenerational poverty tends to be the ultimate trap. People born into it struggle to escape the cycle. It is also a euphemism for chronic poverty, usually associated with developing countries that are battling to break out of it. What does this have to do with wealthy Hong Kong? The answer is to be found in the latest report by the Census and Statistics Department on the number of people who call cramped subdivided units home. This is because they cannot afford to rent or buy a flat of their own in the soaring property market.
It shows that as of 2016 about 210,000 people were crammed into 92,700 rooms, subdivided from 27,100 flats, an increase of about 10,000 occupants. The median monthly rent accounted for 32 per cent of their income. Thirty per cent of these units were occupied by a single tenant, but 15 per cent housed four people or more.
Many of these units have been converted with little regard for building and safety rules and become death traps when fire breaks out. It is disturbing enough that we see no sign of improvement in the situation, but it is more worrying that the overall age of tenants of subdivided flats is falling as property prices continue to soar. To some extent this may be down to young people co-sharing as a lifestyle choice. But it is also a reflection of intergenerational poverty.
Realistically, the government cannot be expected to do anything about it overnight but, as a long-term goal, a wealthy city such as Hong Kong should draw the line on this trend and set concrete goals to reverse it.
Meanwhile, the government and the Hong Kong Council of Social Service and other community organisations have rolled out a scheme of shared private housing units at below market rents for those living in poor conditions and who have been waiting for public housing for three years, with minimum individual living areas of 75 sq ft.
Thankfully, the units are subject to stringent structural safety and fire risk assessments. But, hopefully, this will not become a de facto government-sanctioned housing scheme. An affluent society such as Hong Kong’s can do better than just offer people shared living units or container housing, another solution that has not been ruled out.