In subdivided flat, HK$4,100 for one month’s utilities – Hong Kong’s landlords find new ways to exploit tenants

  • A single mother shares how her landlord inflates her rent by charging impossibly hefty water and electricity fees – without showing her the actual figures on the bill
  • Community organiser from the Society for Community Organisation (SOCO) says this is one of the loopholes in the government’s rent cap law which takes effect in January
Kelly Fung |

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Fandy Wong (left) fans her one-year-old baby with a book, as their landlord has neglected to fix their air conditioner for years. Photo: Dickson Lee

Single mother Fandy Wong lives in one of Hong Kong’s notorious shoebox flats with her one-year-old son, and was charged HK$4,100 (US$527) for a month of water and electricity – almost as much as her HK$4,600 rent.

“How on Earth could these things cost this much money? It’s so unreasonable,” said the 43-year-old, who asked not to be identified by her real name.

Wong said her landlord concocted ways to inflate the HK$4,600 in rent she pays monthly, by charging her impossibly hefty water and electricity fees and not showing her the actual figures on the bill.

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Her plight puts the spotlight on how unscrupulous landlords in the city have been finding ways to get around the government’s latest proposals to cap rents for some 110,000 such homes in Hong Kong.

Last month, lawmakers passed a bill that would cap rent increases for subdivided flats at 10 per cent per lease period. The law will take effect in January next year. However, critics have expressed concern that it may not stop landlords from charging sky-high utility bills.

Wong has been living in a 100 sq ft subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po, one of Hong Kong’s poorest districts, since 2017. She lost her job as a warehouse worker last December, at the height of the local Covid-19 outbreak, and has been getting by on government assistance schemes.

Fandy Wong is a 43-year-old single mother to a one-year-old baby boy. Photo: Dickson Lee

In June last year, Wong said her landlord sent her a WhatsApp message to inform her that the month’s utility costs had skyrocketed from the usual HK$600 to HK$4,150. By contrast, an average household in a medium-sized flat pays just a few hundred Hong Kong dollars monthly.

Since then, Wong has been charged about HK$2,000 to HK$3,000 every month. Her landlord claimed the high costs came from the care needed for Wong’s newborn.

“I couldn’t have been showering my baby non-stop for 24 hours,” she said. “[The landlord] is a really bad person.”

What made it more bewildering for Wong was that she did not have many electronic appliances at home, apart from a refrigerator and a fan. She does not have Wi-fi or a television set, and her landlord has neglected to fix her damaged air conditioner for years.

In the summer, it gets so hot that her son would suffer serious skin allergies.

Fandy’s one-year-old son suffered from serious skin allergies.

When she left Hong Kong to spend two months in mainland China last year, her landlord still charged her more than HK$1,000 for electricity and water per month.

“I was not even in Hong Kong, and I had to pay HK$1,200,” she said.

The single mother said her neighbours on her floor, under the same landlord, have also been hit with unreasonably expensive utility bills.

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Wong lives on the top floor of a five-storey building. The six units on her floor were split from one flat that was originally about 500 to 600 sq ft. In the entire block, there are 18 subdivided units. The higher the level, the more subdivided flats one can find – the landlords did this to avoid drawing attention to the units.

The building is so poorly maintained that the entrance gate could be opened with any key. Wong’s flat does not have a cable outlet for Wi-fi installation or television because the building is too old to support such features. The lights in her ageing fridge are broken, and her landlord has not fixed them for years.

When Wong’s landlord first charged her the hefty bills last June, she refused to pay. Her electricity supply was subsequently cut without advance notice.

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Recalling the ordeal, she said: “My child was still an infant, and I had to boil water to prepare milk for him. I had to find another place to stay.”

She decided to spend two nights in a cheap hotel, before settling some of the utility bills and moving back into the subdivided flat.

In recent months, her landlord has cooked up another way to further exploit her. She was told the money paid for rent would cover utility bills she had rejected earlier.

This way, the landlord made it look as if she would forever owe two months’ rent to him, Wong lamented.

Fandy Wong says her landlord has refused to fix her air conditioner that has been broken for years. Photo: Handout

Knowing that Wong receives subsidies from the Social Welfare Department, her landlord has lodged a complaint to the authority, claiming she has not been paying rent. The move could land her in trouble because part of the roughly HK$12,000 of social security she receives monthly is meant to cover housing costs.

Under these subsidies, she is not allowed to work, and she uses the money to raise her infant and to pay her costly rent and utility charges.

Esther Wu, from the Society for Community Organisation (SOCO), said the government has to take resolute steps to investigate the overcharging situation. The Rating and Valuation Department, which is the executive unit, also has to assist tenants to follow up. She said, otherwise, “the legislation would be nothing”.

Citing a recent SOCO survey of 360 people living in subdivided flats, Wu said it was a typical practice for landlords to set the price of water and electricity higher than that of the Water Supplies Department (WSD) and power companies.

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On average, tenants in subdivided flats pay HK$15 per cubic metre for water and HK$1.6 per unit for electricity – more than WSD’s highest rate of HK$12 for water and the city’s average rate of HK$1.2 for electricity.

“Some landlords would install utility readers that are different from the ones used by the government. No one can ensure that the usage is properly measured. Some landlords would even lock up the readers so they can’t be checked by tenants,” Wu said, adding that many landlords never showed tenants the actual water and electricity bills.

Some buildings with subdivided flats were so poorly managed that tenants’ lives could be in danger, said Wu.

In Wong’s home, water would leak through the walls during typhoon season. Once, a section of the bathroom’s flaking ceiling collapsed, but luckily, she and her son were not around when it happened.

Fandy Wong’s flaking ceiling in her subdivided flat collapsed and her landlord has yet to fix it. Photos: Handout

In the past 10 years, inspections on subdivided flats by the Buildings Department have covered just 8 per cent of such homes across Hong Kong – of the cases that were prosecuted, less than 1 per cent ended with a conviction.

Wu said very often tenants feared being evicted if they were to report their landlords to the authority.

“Landlords have all sorts of tricks to avoid getting caught ... There is now a window before the law takes effect. Landlords remain unrestrained,” Wu said.

Get the word out

  1. Notorious: 惡名昭彰 - Famous or well known, typically for some bad quality or deed

  2. Concoct: 編造 - Create or devise (a story or plan)

  3. Unscrupulous: 不公正的 - Having or showing no moral principles; not honest or fair

  4. Exorbitant: 離譜的 - (Of a price or amount charged) unreasonably high

  5. Bewildering: 令人困惑的 - Confusing or perplexing

  6. Ordeal: 煎熬 - A very unpleasant and prolonged experience

  7. Flaking: 剝落 - A small, flat, very thin piece of something, typically one which has broken away or been peeled off from a larger piece

  8. Prosecute: 起訴 - Institute or conduct legal proceedings against (a person or organisation)

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