In the backyard of Hong Kong’s wealthy, hidden pockets of squalid housing
Many residential buildings found with exposed wires and no fire alarm, and filled with tiny subdivided homes, in an area with household incomes double the city’s average
Luxury development and constant property price increases have created an underbelly of squalid housing for poorer families crammed into tiny subdivided flats in one of Hong Kong’s most affluent districts.
A new study by social workers and academics reflects the reality that amid the glitzy financial towers, plush apartment blocks and trendy shops of Central and Western district, where the median household income is double the city’s average, thousands of less fortunate neighbours are trapped in dilapidated and unsafe homes.
The study, released by the community organisation Caritas and the University of Hong Kong on Sunday, found that of the 114 buildings constructed before 1993 that they surveyed in the older neighbourhoods further west, just over half had flats split into smaller units by their owners and leased out separately.
In these 64 buildings, mostly in Sai Ying Pun, Shek Tong Tsui and Sai Wan, each of the 393 flats had become, on average, two to three homes. Some were divided into as many as seven units, becoming windowless cubicles as little as 40 sq ft in size.
“When it comes to subdivided flats, most people think Sham Shui Po, Tsuen Wan or Yau Tsim Mong,” Caritas social work supervisor Benjamin Sin Chiu-hang said. “We wanted to highlight how in such a wealthy area like Western district, subdivided flats do exist and the figure is actually pretty substantial.”
The group estimated there could be more than 3,400 subdivided flats in the older neighbourhoods further west in the district.
Of the 114 buildings surveyed, three-quarters did not have fire alarm systems and two-thirds lacked fire extinguishers and hose reels. Two-thirds of the buildings had no security guard and only about half had front gates that could be locked.
Those with subdivided flats were in poorer condition, with exposed steel bars and electrical wiring, and concrete peeling off walls and ceilings.
But monthly rents averaged HK$5,116 (US$652), about 10 to 20 per cent higher than for subdivided flats in Kowloon.
Caritas welfare worker Wong Ka-yee said since the MTR Corporation announced in 2008 it would extend the subway line to the westernmost part of Hong Kong Island, property prices and rents in the district had “increased exponentially”.
“Many old buildings have been converted into new luxury residences or redeveloped into rental-only flats. Low-income residents face a shrinking supply of affordable flats,” she said, noting that an influx of expatriates and students had also driven up demand for small flats in the area.
The researchers also found that, on average, tenants spent 36.4 per cent of household income on rent, a figure higher than the citywide median rent-to-income ratio of 32.3 per cent.
Worse still, without independent water or electricity metering, more than 70 per cent were paying utility bills directly to their landlord, often at fixed or overcharged rates.
Interviews with 74 tenants of subdivided flats found most had decided to stay in the area and put up with high rents for work and family reasons.
“Many residents may have long-term jobs, or sometimes even more than one job, in the district. Another reason is that they may have young children going to schools in the area,” Caritas social worker Tse Tsz-ying said.
Others had lived in the district for years, or even generations, and were reluctant to leave a close-knit support network and community, she said.
One resident, a new migrant who asked to remain anonymous, said she was struggling to make ends meet but did not want to move because her job and her daughter’s school were in the neighbourhood.
She had moved homes at least three times in three years, either having been priced out by soaring rents or kicked out by the landlord. One reason given by a landlord for removal was that the daughter, then a newborn, was “too noisy”.
“I’ve looked for flats in Kowloon a few times and rents are about HK$1,000-HK$2,000 cheaper. But factoring in transport costs, it adds up to about the same,” she said.
Her three-member family has a monthly income of about HK$15,000, and HK$8,500 goes on rent.
“Every day we try to avoid bumping into the landlord,” she said. “Every contract renewal feels like we are begging him to let us stay. This is not how humans should live.”