Hong Kong housing

Fast work by WhatsApp group of volunteers helping to fix flats for needy families in Hong Kong

Build and Wish Voluntary Team – a network of more than 120 structural engineers, surveyors and contractors – has pitched in with NGO on social housing project

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 9:04am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 9:03am

When two needy families move into a restored flat next month paying just HK$3,000 (US$385) a month in rent, it will be the culmination of a partnership between a non-profit organisation and a WhatsApp group of professionals to build social housing,

The three-bedroom flat in Cheung Sha Wan, a former industrial area, is one of 10 properties under a social housing project run by Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), in which up to 23 low-income families will be able to benefit.

The 550 sq ft flat will be the first completed for SoCO by Build and Wish Voluntary Team, a network of more than 120 structural engineers, surveyors and contractors.

Under SoCO’s project, old, dilapidated walk-up flats donated or leased to the group are transformed into liveable homes for needy families in the queue for public housing. They can live there for up to five years, or until they are allocated a flat.

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The project, launched last year, allows each tenant family to pay about a quarter of their salary, or HK$3,000 in this case, for the flat.

The flat can accommodate up to six or seven people – either two families, or two single people and a one-parent family.

“We have more than 35 landlords who wanted to offer their flats to us, but as an NGO, we don’t know how to deal with the flats and we don’t know if some of them are structurally safe or suitable,” said SoCO community organiser Jennie Chui Pui-yan.

“Because we’re also not familiar with the industry, contractors would often inflate prices.”

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When it contacted Build and Wish, the team put together engineers and contractors within days via an open recruitment through its WhatsApp group network to examine the structural condition of the flat and recommend a restoration plan.

Eight volunteers were also recruited to help paint the walls after the building work.

Team chairman Poon Kwok-hin, who works as a full-time structural engineer, said the WhatsApp platform was one of the most efficient ways of making use of professional resources.

“There are actually lots of people who want to contribute and help in their free time, but it’s a bit too burdensome if you ask one person to handle a whole project. We all have daytime jobs, but the great thing about this platform is that anyone can raise a hand to offer help if they’re free,” Poon said.

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“There’s no need to go to the government for help. If each person contributes a little, we can together all pitch in to help the needy.”

Chui said input from the experts had helped the NGO cut costs.

The renovations cost HK$110,000, 40 per cent less than the market price. One of the first flats SoCO renovated in the project cost HK$300,000 without the team’s help.

The team, set up in 2015 from a batch of Poon’s students taking construction-related courses at HKU Space, has completed more than 200 small renovations or home improvements.

The group has also expanded to offer free delivery of second-hand furniture to needy families by matching more than 200 social workers and volunteers through WhatsApp.

Last year, the government pledged to look into the idea of converting industrial buildings into transitional housing for poor families. More than 210,000 people live in subdivided flats.