How co-living for old and young could ease Hong Kong’s housing crisis and create a more caring community
- Polly Chu says cross-generational co-living and shared houses for the elderly would address both the ageing population and the need for affordable housing
- Government oversight would be required to ensure safety and that co-living spaces do not degenerate into subdivided flats
Housing is a problem that has haunted Hong Kong for decades. Most working-class people, including highly paid professionals, work themselves to the bone only to find themselves struggling to afford a roof over their heads. There are various solutions to the housing problem; one is adopting the global trend of co-living arrangements.
Cross-generational co-living is not a completely foreign concept to Hong Kong. In 2008, the Housing Department introduced the Harmonious Families Priority Scheme, under which priority for public rental housing allocation would be given to applicants with elderly family members. If we could put this concept into action on a larger scale, with reference to overseas examples, we might be able to ease the housing problem while creating a more caring and supportive community.
In Spain, the municipal government of Alicante constructed Plaza de America in 2008 to provide affordable housing for two age groups – elderly people aged 65 or above, and young adults aged 35 or below – at lower than market rents. The only condition set for young tenants is that they are required to assist any elderly person who may need help and to set aside four hours a week for them.
Another hallmark example comes from the Netherlands. Dutch university students are offered free accommodation in senior nursing homes in exchange for them volunteering 30 hours a month to “act as neighbours” to the elderly residents. In both these cases, cross-generational co-living has been well received.
Co-living might work well in Hong Kong, especially as many youngsters would have experienced sharing their living space when they stayed in residence halls at university. Yet, in order to implement this idea, adjustments would have to be made and thorough planning carried out.
For instance, facilities in public housing or nursing homes would need to be renovated and modified to cater to the needs of both the elderly and young adults. For example, enhanced personal emergency services, slip-resistant flooring in bathrooms and motion-sensitive lifts would need to be in place for the elderly. For young adults, a Wi-fi connection would be a necessity.
The idea of co-living is not confined to cross-generational arrangements. In the 2011-2012 policy address, then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen proposed the Youth Hostel Scheme to offer working youth aged 18 to 30 their own living space at a relatively affordable rent. Six projects, which will provide 2,800 hostel units, are under way.
However, some people question whether, given the stringent eligibility criteria and short tenancy period, the scheme will be able to relieve the housing pressure. There are also doubts over whether the 2,800 hostel units are enough to meet the huge demand, with youth aged between 20 and 29 comprising 12.7 per cent of the population in 2017.
Despite all the criticism, it is encouraging to see the government taking steps to solve the housing problem while at the same time bringing the trend of co-living to Hong Kong. The concept could redefine and rejuvenate the way people live together, encouraging more interaction between residents and offering diverse community experiences.
Watch: Young Hong Kong professionals embrace co-living
It is not hard to foresee investors making use of this business opportunity to tap the huge market potential. In the long run, there might be more privately run youth hostels. However, both the government and hostel operators should not overlook the challenges involved.
Privately run youth hostels should not neglect quality of life or they may end up being subdivided flats in disguise. The size of each apartment, living room, lounges, shared kitchens and the number of rooms to be rented out within the premises should be subject to government supervision and regulation to ensure a habitable environment.
Operators should also pay attention to the land use requirements. For any changes in land use not allowed under the lease, owners should apply to the Lands Department to approve the modification. Hostel residents should also comply with the Deed of Mutual Covenant and other management agreements, if any.
Youth hostels do seem to be an attractive proposal to lessen the immense pressure of public housing. However, only with careful planning and regulation can a decent living space be guaranteed to working young people.
The ageing population is an imminent challenge that Hong Kong must face. Apart from arranging for more care workers to look after the elderly and building more nursing homes for them, a co-living housing model could be another viable option to help the elderly lead a more independent life.
The Older Women's Co-Housing community in the UK serves as an excellent example, with a group of elderly women from different backgrounds – retirees, widows, divorced women and empty-nesters – living together harmoniously. Within this social circle, the elderly can live independently while remaining connected with their friends and supporting one another.
Needless to say, the density, size and facilities of co-living houses should be carefully designed. The government could also do more in terms of financial support and allocating land marked “government, institution or community” use to build co-living houses for the elderly.
Licensing is another key point. Under current statutory requirements, licences are needed for the operation of nursing homes and residential care homes (elderly persons) and provision of health and care services are also mandatory. In the case of co-living houses aimed at more self-sufficient elderly people, the licensing requirements as well as the standard and quality of services provided are crucial matters which deserve thorough consideration.
Watch: Can Hong Kong’s elderly afford quality lifetime rental flats?
These ideas entail much more than merely offering a solution to a problem, as they touch on issues ranging from mental health, self-sufficiency and the self-image of the elderly to broader topics like community bonding and social cohesion.
As the population continues to grow, the question of housing tops the policy agenda for our city’s leaders. While there are varied solutions to the problem, alleviating the shortage of affordable housing will take the concerted effort of the government, NGOs and other parties.
Polly Chu is a partner in the corporate team at Withersworldwide, where she has extensive experience in all aspects of real-estate-related transactions