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Hong Kong housing

Hong Kong housing scheme gives ex-offender a new home, a new job, and a new life full of hope

  • Society for Community Organisation is changing lives, one subdivided flat at a time
  • But demand is far outstripping supply as Hong Kong’s housing crisis shows no signs of easing
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2018, 10:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2018, 10:00am

For the first time in almost a decade Sam Lee is living a life full of hope.

An ex-offender who used to be homeless, Lee, whose name has been changed for this article, now has a room in a renovated flat, albeit in one of the poorest districts in Hong Kong. And, because he has a permanent address, he now also has a job.

It is a far cry from the emergency housing he has used in the past, tales of which are enough to soften even the hardest of hearts.

Lee, a 48-year-old divorcee, shares his 600 sq ft flat with five other ex-street sleepers in Tai Kok Tsui, West Kowloon. Each person gets a cubicle made with prefabricated metal plates and poles, giving them 43 sq ft of personal space.

Unlike shelters and dormitories operated by the government and NGOs, which normally provide six months’ accommodation at most, the flat – one of the four units provided by the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) in its transitional housing scheme – could be home to the men for up to three years.

Thirteen of the 24 places in the four flats had been filled since early September, and another six were expected to be filled by the end of November.

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Monthly rent is HK$1,835 (US$235), the same amount as the monthly housing supplement for a single person under Comprehensive Social Security Assistance, and about half the present market value for a modest bed space.

“The environment here is as different as heaven and hell compared to some places I visited in search of emergency housing,” Lee said. In the worst case he encountered, the flat was flooded with three inches of sewage water, and human waste.

More important than the precious private space, which came with a newly refurbished kitchen and toilet, the place gave Lee an address.

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“You can hardly find a job with a contract without one,” he said. “Soon after I moved in, I got a stable job in the logistics industry which pays HK$12,000 a month.”

Lee, who had been forced back out on to the streets four times by unstable income and soaring rents since 2009, plans to start saving and hopes to eventually find himself a place without being subsidised.

But, not everyone struggling to find housing can get the life-changing opportunity Lee has been given.

Including SoCO’s scheme, the social housing programme tasked by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service – an umbrella group of welfare organisations – will only be able to provide 1,000 to 2,000 flats by 2020, with a priority for families. The programme was rolled out by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in her maiden policy address in 2017.

But, by the end of June, 268,500 households – of which 44 per cent were singles – were waiting for a public housing flat, with most having waited 5.3 years, according to official numbers. In addition, at least 1,127 individuals were sleeping on the streets in 2017/18, while only 640 shelter places were available, the social welfare authorities said.

In her second policy address earlier this month, Lam said a task force would be set up under the Transport and Housing Bureau to “increase the supply of transitional housing”.

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Ng Wai-tung, a veteran social worker behind SoCO’s transitional housing scheme, called on the government to join in the development of social housing, and set up special quotas for single individuals in need.

SoCO’s scheme is sponsored by the Keswick Foundation, with HK$200,000 for each flat, and the flats are leased to the group at a discounted rate by two developers. Fourteen teachers and students, led by associate professor Du Juan from the architecture department of the University of Hong Kong, completed the design on a pro bono basis.

“With the priority set for families in distributing public housing, and the limited number of shelter places, single people with housing difficulties are left with few choices,” Ng said.

“But supply for transitional housing can’t be large and quick if NGOs have to carry out everything on their own, ranging from looking for suitable flats, applying for funding, and other preliminary works,” he added.

Echoing Ng’s appeal for more official help, Du said: “There is a very large population who are working and contributing to the society, but they cannot make enough to afford sufficient housing.” The biggest problem caused by the worsening living conditions in subdivided flats – where there was no guarantee of fresh air and sufficient lighting – lay in health, and “it’s invisible”, according to Du.

“There are so many old flats like this [where Lee is living], in the city, that need maybe another ten years to be redeveloped,” Du said. “Turning them into transitional housing is better than leaving them empty.”

A spokesman for the Housing Department said the task force, set up under the Transport and Housing Bureau, was a measure of the government’s determination to help the implementation of various community initiatives to increase social and transactional housing.