America’s large family homes may be a waste of space, but Hong Kong’s 200 sq ft flats are inhumane

  • Peter Kammerer says Americans have been found to gravitate to kitchens and TV areas, however big their homes are
  • In Hong Kong, the lack of guidelines on the size of private residences has led to too-tight living spaces – 400 sq ft should be the minimum size allowed
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2019, 2:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2019, 4:54am

Bigger is not always better when it comes to housing. Property developers have conditioned us to believe that upscaling will boost our status, open up possibilities and, as a result, make us happier. But there is no evidence that laying out more cash for extra floor area does anything other than increase costs. It makes more sense to live sustainably and within means, as Hongkongers who migrate to Western countries quickly find out.

Initially, they are dazzled by the scale and prospects, by houses that are typically 2,000 sq ft or more. Selling a standard, 430-sq-ft Hong Kong flat will buy that in the suburbs of most American, Canadian or Australian cities and there will still be money left.

But such properties come with a myriad of obligations, starting with cleaning and maintenance. And a wasteful – even environmentally unfriendly – amount of energy is required to light, cool and heat such large areas.

According to a study by University of California, Los Angeles-affiliated researchers, Americans don’t have much use for all that space anyway. The median size of the single-family US house peaked at 2,467 sq ft in 2015 and has since been falling.

Watch: Living big in a micro flat

For almost four decades, homeowners chased the American dream of getting bigger houses, with ever more features like formal living rooms, dining rooms and indoor theatres.

But the researchers, using cameras to study 32 dual-income families in the Los Angeles area, found that they spent most of their time gathering in the kitchen or watching television in informal areas.

They rarely, if ever, used the showpiece rooms, which tended to fill with clutter.

Hong Kong is at the opposite end of the spectrum. The unaffordability of housing, along with the inherent desire of Hongkongers to own a home, gave rise to the phenomenon of the super-small flat of 200 sq ft or less, variously known as a micro apartment, shoebox home or nano flat.

Enterprising developers met market demand by building flats as small as a parking space, around 134 sq ft and sometimes even less.

But the trend has changed since August, when rising interest rates and the trade war between China and the US drove down property prices, fuelling a return to more normal-sized homes of between 400 and 700 sq ft.

Whether there will be demand for the 5,000 flats of about 300 sq ft each from CK Asset’s planned redevelopment of the 1,100-room Harbour Plaza Resort City Hotel in Tin Shui Wai is a matter for town planners considering the application, and, if approved, the market.

With about 50 flats a floor, it would be the most densely packed new development in Hong Kong for a decade. But, like the nano flats, it has reignited discussion about how much living space is needed to ensure the well-being of citizens.

Living area of city’s poorest residents same as that of prisoners

Hongkongers have perhaps the least per capita living space in the world, just 161 sq ft. Although the Japanese authorities have set a national target of 269 sq ft to ensure “a healthy and culturally fulfilling life”, Tokyoites have an average of 205 sq feet each.

A property agent near my home recommends 400 sq ft for a single person and 550 sq ft for a family of four. After living in half a dozen apartments, I’d suggest her calculations are just about right.

The Housing Authority stipulates that public housing tenants must get at least 75 sq ft each, but there are no guidelines on private residences.

The authorities’ priorities are to find land and, as Secretary for Development Michael Wong Wai-lun said last June, “to meet the basic accommodation needs of the people”.

But just as huge American homes are wasteful, cramming people into ever tighter spaces with minimal recreation facilities is also wrong.

So-called international cities treat their citizens humanely and don’t pen them in like animals, no matter how short of land their governments claim to be.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post