Life in Hong Kong’s shoebox housing (3 parts)

HONG KONG’S SUBDIVIDED UNITS (Part 1) SCMP

‘Like a caged animal’: why Hongkongers in city’s notorious subdivided flats say they have no choice

By Fiona SunPublished June 8, 2022

Hong Kong’s poor and destitute have long been unable to afford anything but subdivided living spaces. Now Beijing wants the local government to rid the city of these tiny units and “cage homes” by 2049. John Lee Ka-chiu, who will be sworn in as the city’s next leader on the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule on July 1, has pledged to resolve housing woes. In the first of a three-part series, Fiona Sun looks at the city’s worst homes and speaks to the people living in them. Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

After a long night shift, security guard Leung returns to the tiny space he calls home in an old residential building in Sham Shui Po.

He has 50 sq ft in a loft space that has been subdivided into 12 units of more or less the same size, each barely enough for one person.

His space is so small that he piles boxes of personal belongings and clothes on the bed, which means he cannot stretch out fully when he sleeps. He has a sink, and a bathroom with no door, but there is no kitchen.

The windowless space is stuffy, even more so in summer. Mosquitoes keep him up on many nights, and his mattress is stained by squashed bed bugs.

“ When I tell people new to the city about my living conditions, they just cannot believe it,” says Leung, 58, who asked to be identified only by his surname.

Divorced with an adult son, he moved into the unit in April last year. He had a slightly bigger unit in the same loft for about a year, but downsized when he could no longer afford the HK$3,900 (US$500) rent. Now he pays HK$2,800 a month.

subdivided flat
Leung at his subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

RELATED INFOGRAPHIC
Life in Hong Kong’s shoebox housing, visually explained

There are more than 220,000 people like Leung, living in Hong Kong’s worst housing. The city has about 110,000 subdivided flats, mostly in dilapidated buildings in Kowloon and the New Territories.

Most are rented by singles or couples, but occupants also include single parents and their children, and even three-generation households.

The severe housing shortage in the city has driven people to rent tiny spaces in overcrowded flats with as many as 40 occupants.

The most notorious are “cage homes”, which are also known as “coffin homes”, where partitioned, boxlike units are stacked from floor to ceiling, separated by thin wooden boards or wire mesh.

Leung’s current accommodation reminds him of his childhood, when he and his two brothers squeezed with their parents into a subdivided flat before moving to a public rental home in Sham Shui Po.

He left home when he got married and bought his own flat. Now divorced, he left the property to his ex-wife and son.

Leung ran a logistics company in mainland China, but it went bankrupt in 2019 and he returned to Hong Kong. He was jobless until he found work as a security guard last year.

He longs to have a better place to stay, but says:“ Bad as it is, this is all I can afford for now.”

Most occupants have no choice

Hong Kong’s subdivided housing spaces, many of them windowless and plagued by hygiene and fire hazards, have been criticised for their poor living conditions.

cage homes
So-called cage homes are the worst of the worst of Hong Kong’s substandard housing. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Despite their state, the government has long adopted a policy of merely ensuring their safety rather than phasing them out, as many believe the city’s poorest need these homes.

Last July, however, the director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Xia Baolong, set city administrators the target of eliminating deep-seated social problems by 2049, when the People’s Republic of China celebrates the centenary of its founding.

Specifically, he demanded city leaders eradicate subdivided units and cage homes.

In what was her final policy address last October, city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor did not refer to Xia but made housing and land supply a major focus, setting the goal of providing decent accommodation to all residents.

Her successor as chief executive, John Lee Ka-chiu, has pledged to act on housing, and made a point during his election campaign to visit poor residents of subdivided flats.

A report by the Transport and Housing Bureau in March last year said there were an estimated 110,008 subdivided units housing 226,340 people, or about 3 per cent of the city’s 7.5 million population.

It said the median area of these units was 124 sq ft, but social workers estimate that some are as small as 20 sq ft. More than 60 per cent of the units are in Kowloon, about 24 per cent are in the New Territories and the rest are on Hong Kong Island.

To protect renters, the government introduced a tenancy control bill on subdivided units last July, which was passed by the Legislative Council and took effect in January. Among other measures, it restricts rent increases when leases are renewed.

Lawmaker Wilson Or
Former lawmaker Wilson Or Chong-shing during Legco meeting of Landlord and Tenant (Consolidation) (Amendment) Bill 2021. Photo: Dickson Lee

Most tenants of subdivided units say that with their meagre incomes, they have no other choice of lodging.

Unable to buy their own homes in a city with skyrocketing property prices, their best hope is to get a public rental flat. But the queue is so long that it can take a decade to get one, and most say they are forced to rent a subdivided space while waiting.

An irony of Hong Kong’s housing scene is that on a per-square-foot basis, the city’s poorest people pay rents comparable to those for private flats, or even more.

Statistics show that in April, the average monthly rent per square foot of a private flat under 430 sq ft was about HK$37 on Hong Kong Island, HK$35 in Kowloon and HK$28 in the New Territories.

For subdivided units, the median monthly rent – the midpoint between the lowest and highest rents – was HK$39 per sq ft, according to the report by the Transport and Housing Bureau.

But still people choose these homes because the overall monthly rent is still lower. The report showed that the median monthly rent for a subdivided unit was HK$4,800, much lower than for the smallest private flats.

For those in subdivided units, rent takes up about a third of their monthly household income.

The Transport and Housing Bureau report showed that these households had a median monthly income of HK$15,000 in 2020, less than half the HK$33,000 for all households in the fourth quarter of that year.

When the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) interviewed 432 households living in tiny spaces in April last year, it found that the median monthly rent was between HK$4,500 and HK$6,500 for traditional subdivided flats – in which a standard unit is partitioned into two or more smaller spaces – HK$2,300 for tiny bed spaces, and HK$2,800 for cubicles.

SoCO found that in March last year, average monthly rents per square foot worked out to HK$104 for a bed space, HK$30 to HK$43 for a traditional subdivided flat and HK$40 for a cubicle – higher than the rate per square foot for most private homes of various sizes.

Lawrance Wong Dun-king, president of Many Wells Property Agent, says the higher rent per square foot for subdivided spaces shows the imbalance between supply and demand in Hong Kong.

“ The smaller the unit is, the higher its per-square-foot rent. The result is, the poorest pay the highest rent,” he says.

‘Waiting for death’

For the past seven years, Xing Aizhen, 46, and her two sons from her first marriage, aged 20 and 15, have shared a 100 sq ft space in a Mong Kok flat.

subdivided flat
Xing Aizhen in her subdivided flat in Mong Kok. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Originally from Hainan province, she came to the city with her sons in 2015 after marrying again, but her second marriage to a Hongkonger ended in divorce too.

Earning about HK$10,000 a month as a part-time waitress, she says she cannot afford anything better than the subdivided unit, which costs HK$3,900 a month.

Her two sons share a bunk bed while Xing sleeps on a single bed. Their bathroom and kitchen practically share the same space, and she can smell the stench of the toilet while preparing food.

With only two small windows, the place is so poorly ventilated that stir-frying food leaves a strong, greasy odour. She only boils or steams their meals.

“ The place is just too small for the three of us,” she says, adding that her older son often complains about the arrangement.

She says the space seemed even smaller during the coronavirus pandemic, when the three of them stayed at home. Her older son took online vocational cooking courses, and her younger son, in secondary school, also had online classes. She has been staying home more too, as her employer cut her working hours and income.

After waiting five years for a public rental flat, Xing says she hopes to provide a bigger place with better living conditions for her sons.

“ A good place to live is important for us to lead a stable and secure life,” she says.

For many like her, public rental housing offers the only hope, but such flats are hard to come by.

rental housing scheme
An elderly resident applies for the Housing Society rental housing scheme. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

As of March this year, there were about 147,500 general applications for public rental housing from families and single elderly people who had priority, with an average waiting time of 6.1 years.

Further back in the queue were about 97,700 non-elderly single applicants, many of whom have been waiting for decades.

SoCO deputy director Sze Lai-shan says that when it comes to inadequate accommodation in Hong Kong, the “coffin homes” are the worst of all.

“ Some elderly people describe their lives in cage homes as ‘waiting for death’,” she says.

Hongkonger Tsang Shiu-tung, 51, says he sees “no light at the end of the tunnel”, having been in the queue for public rental housing for 16 years.

He lives in one of 18 coffin-like bed spaces separated by wooden boards in a flat in a dilapidated tenement building in Yau Ma Tei.

“ I live like an animal in a cage,” he says.

subdivided flat
Tsang Shiu-tung lives in one of 18 bed spaces in a subdivided flat in Yau Ma Tei. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Divorced with no children, he moved into the place in May last year and pays a monthly rent of HK$1,500. The pandemic has left the part-time supermarket porter with a reduced income of less than HK$10,000 a month.

The tiny compartments, each marked with a number, are stacked into two levels. The 18 male tenants, aged from their 40s to their 80s, share two bathrooms, only one of which has a shower. There is no kitchen.

The environment is hellish, Tsang says. His upper-level bed space is so narrow that he can barely stretch out fully or sit upright without hitting the wooden partition, only to have the man in the bunk below kick upwards to signal his irritation.

Some of the men stay up late, others smoke indoors and the pungent smell of cigarettes lingers. Tsang draws the door of his compartment, but that does little to block the noise or smoke, and only makes it stuffier inside.

There have been times when he resorted to sleeping rough in parks just to get away.

“ I want to escape from this place, where I feel so helpless,” he says. “All I want is a safe place to live.”

Part two will look at the poor living conditions and safety hazards at Hong Kong’s worst homes, and the impact of poor housing on tenants, including their mental health.

       PART 1   |   PART 2   |   PART 3     >>

HONG KONG’S SUBDIVIDED UNITS (Part 2) SCMP

‘This is not a home’: depression, cockroaches, rats and shame add up to misery for Hongkongers in subdivided flats

By Fiona SunPublished June 9, 2022

In the second of a three-part series on Hong Kong’s subdivided flats, Fiona Sun looks at the physical and mental toll on tenants of the city’s most inadequate housing. Beijing has set the city government the target of getting rid of these tiny units and ‘cage homes’ by 2049. Read Part 1 here and Part 3 here.

Siumei* prepares dinner in the living room of the 100 sq ft space she calls home in Mong Kok, while her seven-year-old son does his homework at a massage bed near her.

The 42-year-old divorcee lives with her son and widowed mother, 70, in a subdivided unit too small to have a separate kitchen.

The adults eat at a small foldable table, while the boy has his meal on the bed, with a line of drying laundry hanging over him.

After dinner, Siumei plays with her son on the floor while her mother watches TV. Sometimes the three go for a walk outside to leave their tiny space for a while.

Their 10 sq ft bathroom, most of which is occupied by the toilet and sink, is so small that Siumei must stand outside to help her son bathe. The blocked drainage means they can only shower for less than five minutes at a time, or smelly waste water will flood the floor.

subdivided flat
Siumei at her subdivided flat in Mong Kok. Photo: Jonathan Wong

RELATED INFOGRAPHIC
Life in Hong Kong’s shoebox housing, visually explained

Siumei and her son share the upper berth of a bunk bed, while her mother sleeps below. They are occasionally startled by rats, which have chewed into their wooden furniture. Cockroaches and dragonflies are common.

One window opens to a podium of stinking garbage, so it is kept closed. Poor ventilation makes their home stuffy, but they switch on the air conditioner only at night to save electricity.

“ When my son asked why we live in such a tiny, poor place, I can only tell him I was too poor to afford a bigger home,” says Siumei, who came to Hong Kong from Guangdong after meeting a Hongkonger.

The couple married in 2009 but divorced six years later.

She pays about HK$4,000 (US$513) a month for their unit in a seven-storey tenement building that is more than 50 years old. The amount is more than half her monthly income working part-time at a restaurant.

“ I feel so burnt out and helpless, but I don’t even have room to vent my emotions,” she says.

Hong Kong has about 110,000 subdivided units ranging from 20 sq ft to 200 sq ft, and they are notorious for their substandard conditions, poor hygiene and fire and security hazards.

The poor environment has taken a heavy toll on the physical and mental health of the more than 220,000 people who live in them.

Flimsy partitions, fire hazards

Most subdivided units are in dilapidated tenements, many of which are dubbed “three nil buildings” because they are without owners’ corporations, residents’ organisations or property management companies.

The findings of a survey released by the Transport and Housing Bureau in March last year showed that concerns about electricity supply, law and order, and the lack of a fire escape were the top sources of dissatisfaction among subdivided unit tenants.

Professor Yau Yung, of Lingnan University’s department of sociology and social policy, says the subdivision of flats often results in narrow, long and blocked escape routes, and poor ventilation makes it hard for smoke to disperse.

Some partitions are not fire-resistant and, without access to kitchen facilities, cooking over an open flame within the units is a fire hazard.

The Buildings Department warns that work to remove original walls and install new partitions to create subdivided units or add toilets and kitchens may adversely affect safety and hygiene, and put tenants’ lives at risk.

The department issued 1,913 removal orders for such works from 2016 to 2020, for flouting the Buildings Ordinance. It issued 475 orders last year, and 18 in the first three months of this year.

Tong Lau
In densely built Hong Kong, fire hazards are among the dangers in subdivided flats. Photo: Sun Yeung

The operation of the city’s tiniest bed spaces, known as “cage homes”, is regulated by the Bedspace Apartments Ordinance.

The Home Affairs Department says the number of licensed bed space apartments fell from 15 in 2011 to nine this year. They included six in Yau Tsim Mong district, and one each in Central and Western, Eastern, and Sham Shui Po districts.

But social workers say many more cage homes as small as 20 sq ft are available in unlicensed flats that go unrecorded.

‘Inhuman conditions’

Yau Sai, 68, pays HK$2,000 a month for his boxlike compartment in an unlicensed bed space flat he shares with 18 other men and women in Mong Kok.

Returning at night from his job at a food factory in Tsuen Wan, the single man, who asked to be identified only by his given name, unlocks his unit and climbs into it, taking care not to hit his head.

The flat is stacked floor-to-ceiling with three-layered boxes separated by wooden boards, each big enough for one adult to lie in.

Yau Sai’s mid-level space keeps him sandwiched between tenants above and below him. A tall man of 180cm, he cannot stretch out as half his space holds his personal belongings.

subdivided flat
Yau Sai, 68, pays HK$2,000 a month for his limited space. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

There is a small kitchen and three bathrooms. A tenant used to be paid by the landlord to clean the common areas, but that stopped, leaving the bathrooms dirty.

For privacy, Yau Sai keeps his compartment door closed, but that does little to block the sounds of other tenants chatting, making phone calls or watching TV.

He browses his mobile phone for the news and to watch videos before bedtime, but is sometimes startled when the tenant above him hits the wooden boards accidentally.

A bad night’s sleep can leave him with an aching back the next day. He makes sure to lock his unit and take all his cash and bank cards with him when he leaves the flat.

“ It’s inhuman to live in such conditions,” he says, adding he cannot afford anything better on his monthly income of about HK$10,000.

According to a report on the quality of living in subdivided units released by the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) last August, almost all 347 households surveyed complained about hygiene problems.

Many subdivided flats had rats, mosquitoes and bugs. Many units had a makeshift kitchen installed in the living room or a bedroom.

Wrongly connected water pipes smelled bad, and water seeped through walls or from the ceiling. Poor ventilation was common, and some units had no windows.

Damaged ceiling
A damaged ceiling at a subdivided flat in Kwai Chung. Photo: Edmond So

In another SoCO survey of 385 households living in cage homes and cubicles in 2020, one in three said they did not feel safe having to stay at home during the Covid-19 pandemic and feared contracting the virus.

More than half shared a toilet with seven to 10 others – with some using the same toilet with as many as 16 to 20 others – and there were complaints that common areas such as the kitchen and bathroom were not cleaned during the pandemic.

Impact on physical, mental health

Living in such poor conditions affects tenants’ physical and mental health, social workers say.

A survey conducted between 2020 and 2021 by the NGO Caritas Community Development Service of 527 households living in inadequate housing, including subdivided units, asked tenants to score their physical and mental well-being on a scale of up to 100.

Three in five scored below 50 for physical health, and more than nine in 10 scored below 50 for mental health.

Many suffered muscle strain, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory problems, as well as mental disorders, and some blamed their poor living conditions.

Wong Siu-wai, the NGO’s senior social work supervisor, says children living in subdivided flats face higher risks of eye problems because of a lack of natural light, and many have spinal problems from studying in bed.

“ Housing has a significant impact on people’s physical and mental health,” she says.

The Kwai Chung Subdivided Flat Residents Alliance, made up of residents living in such units in Kwai Chung and social workers, found in a survey last year that about three in four of 78 people living in inadequate housing units suffered moderate to severe depression, and more than two in five had moderate to severe anxiety.

subdivided flat
A resident at his subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Social worker Poon Wing-shan, a member of the alliance, says sharing small spaces often leads to conflict and there is no escape for tenants at home. They are also burdened by their rent, which accounts for about 40 to 50 per cent of their income.

She says tenants live in a constant state of insecurity, subject to rent increases and utility charges by landlords, and fear being kicked out at any time.

Some who are parents feel guilty for being unable to provide their children a better living environment.

“ They regard living in subdivided units as a failure,” Poon says. “None of them thinks of their unit as home, and they view themselves as passers-by with no roots.”

‘No sense of belonging’

Housewife May Lau, 34, feels too ashamed to tell anyone where she lives with her husband, a renovation worker from mainland China who is also 34, and their five-year-old daughter.

“ Living in a subdivided unit makes me feel inferior to others,” she says.

The family moved into a 150 sq ft subdivided unit in Kwai Chung for HK$6,300 a month in June last year after living with her parents at their public rental flat in the same area.

subdivided flat
Some parents feel guilty about being unable to provide a good environment for their children. Photo: Dickson Lee

But with her husband’s monthly income of about HK$14,000 – below the city’s poverty line for a three-person household – they could not afford anything bigger.

Their unit is one of the three within a flat and has no separate bedroom or kitchen. There is no space for a sofa or television, and they eat at a small, low table. All three squeeze themselves on the lower berth of a bunk bed, keeping their belongings piled above.

Her daughter, a kindergarten pupil, complains that there is no room to play and asks to return to her grandparents’ home.

Her husband’s parents in mainland China also blame her for the family’s poor housing, and Lau says she has stopped seeing some friends who look down on her because of her circumstances.

Alone at home, she is sometimes overwhelmed worrying their rent might go up, and fearing the impact of the family’s poor living conditions on her daughter.

“It is not a home. I have no sense of belonging here,” Lau says.

*Name changed at interviewee’s request.

The next and last installment of this three-part series will look at the alternatives for tenants of subdivided units, their prospects for better accommodation, and what the government’s target of having no more subdivided units by 2049 means for them.

<<     PART 1   |   PART 2   |   PART 3     >>

HONG KONG’S SUBDIVIDED UNITS (Part 3) SCMP

Can Hong Kong deliver on 2049 target to wipe out subdivided flats and ‘cage homes’? Resident says ‘I will probably die in one of them’

By Fiona SunPublished June 10, 2022

In the last of a three-part series on Hong Kong’s subdivided flats, Fiona Sun looks at the alternatives for tenants, their prospects for better accommodation, and what the government needs to do to achieve Beijing’s target of getting rid of such housing by 2049. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Cindy Lu finally put her days of living in a tiny subdivided space behind her, after waiting 10 long years.

The housewife, 37, moved into a public rental flat in Kwai Shing East last October with her husband, 39, two daughters aged 14 and 11, and two-year-old son.

Their 450 sq ft flat has a living room and three bedrooms, and the monthly rent is about HK$2,500 (US$320).

“ Finally I don’t have to worry about rats and cockroaches or the ceiling leaking on rainy days. Nor need I fear rent increases or being kicked out at any time,” she says.

Before this, the family paid HK$4,200 a month to squeeze into a 100 sq ft subdivided unit in Kwai Chung. It seemed even smaller during the coronavirus pandemic, when all five were at home.

The family had only known living in similar tiny spaces, because they could not afford better on her husband’s income of about HK$10,000 a month as a construction worker.

Public rental housing was their only hope of better living conditions and they applied in 2011, only to wait a decade before the good news finally arrived last year.

“ The wait and struggle seemed endless,” Lu says. “But now I’m looking forward to a stable and secure life. It finally feels like a home.”

public housing
A public housing project in Fanling. Photo: Felix Wong

RELATED INFOGRAPHIC
Life in Hong Kong’s shoebox housing, visually explained

More than 220,000 people live in about 110,000 subdivided units, Hong Kong’s smallest and most substandard housing, and many long for better accommodation.

According to a report released by the Transport and Housing Bureau in March last year, nearly half of households in subdivided flats had applied for public rental housing.

A survey by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service between June 2020 and January last year found that about seven in 10 of the 2,108 respondents living in subdivided flats had no idea how long they would remain in such housing. The rest expected to stay for about four years on average.

Long wait to move out

Social workers and experts say that skyrocketing private home prices and rents, the severe shortage of affordable public housing, and insufficient government and social support have left many unable to get out of substandard living conditions.

For many, public rental housing is their only shot at anything better, but the wait can be agonisingly long.

Hong Kong had 844,078 public rental flats at the end of March this year, housing about 2.2 million people.

As of March this year, there were about 147,500 general applications for public rental housing from family and elderly one-person applicants, with an average waiting time of 6.1 years.

Further back in the queue were another 97,700 non-elderly one-person applicants, many of whom have been waiting decades.

“ I have grown older in these tiny units. I will probably die in one of them,” says Jane*, 47, who has lived in subdivided units for about 30 years.

The single woman, a clerk, left her parents’ public rental flat at 18 and has moved about eight times over the years, whenever landlords sold the property or raised the rent.

On her salary of HK$10,000 a month, this is all she can afford, even as rents have crept up and her living space has shrunk. She started out paying HK$2,000 a month for a 200 sq ft unit, but now pays HK$4,200 for less than 100 sq ft in Sham Shui Po.

Her current place has room for only a single bed, table and fridge, but she worries her landlord may raise the rent and she will have to move again.

Jane applied for a public rental flat in 2005 but has no idea if one will ever come her way. The endless waiting has left her feeling helpless and depressed.

New moves to ease housing woes

Social workers have long urged the authorities to build more public rental flats to meet the demand.

“ Some residents have waited so long that they grew old and gave up, waiting for death in their subdivided units,” says Sze Lai-shan, deputy director of the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO).

Outgoing Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said last October that the government had identified about 350 hectares to build about 330,000 public housing units over the next decade, exceeding demand.

She said another 5,000 units would be added to the overall supply of transitional housing, making a total of 20,000 units in coming years for people living in poor conditions while waiting for public rental flats.

As of May, there were 4,484 transitional housing units with about 6,000 occupants.

The government has also subsidised NGOs to rent suitable hotels and guest houses to use as transitional housing. As of April, it had approved five NGOs to provide 730 units and about 450 have already been occupied by about 570 people.

subdivided unit
An elderly resident at his subdivided unit in Sham Shui Po. Photo: Edmond So

SoCO has provided about 300 transitional housing units, including hotel rooms and private flats, for about 700 people, who pay HK$2,000 to HK$6,000 a month and can remain for up to three years.

Sze says such units – clean, with windows and are under good management – are still in too short supply and there are thousands on the waiting list.

Among the first to move into SoCO’s transitional housing was Steffen Lee Kar-chow, 72, who settled into a 100 sq ft hostel unit in Mong Kok last August at a monthly rent of HK$2,500.

He has a double bed and cupboard, but no table. The bathroom is small but clean. Without a kitchen, he has to buy takeaway food and eat over his suitcase. The only window opens to a podium that stinks of sewage.

“ It is much better than the place where I used to live,” says Lee, who has four children from a past relationship but has no contact with them or their mother.

The retired underground surveyor used to pay HK$1,500 a month for a bed space in a flat with a dozen other male tenants who shared one toilet.

He had nothing but a bed and, for privacy, he had to hang a piece of cloth around his tiny space. He wore earplugs when he wanted to shut out the sounds around him.

Happy with his SoCO unit for now, he hopes he will get a public rental flat eventually. He applied for one last year, but was told he did not qualify because his savings exceeded the limit.

He will apply again when his savings run out.

transitional housing unit
Steffen Lee now lives in a transitional housing unit in Mong Kok. Photo: Nora Tam

More efforts to protect tenants

A new tenancy control bill passed by the Legislative Council last year took effect in January, which, among others, restricts rental hikes and utilities charges.

But tenants and concern groups said not much has improved, as many occupants were still overcharged for water and electricity, and some landlords resorted to oral agreements instead of signing a written contract with tenants to bypass the regulations.

They also criticised the authorities for failing to enforce the law and intervene in cases where the rules had been breached.

Other schemes by the administration aim to improve the living conditions of those waiting for public rental flats.

The Cash Allowance Trial Scheme, launched in June last year, offers cash allowances of HK$1,300 to HK$3,900 a month for households who have waited for public rental housing for more than three years. About 90,000 households are expected to benefit.

The Community Care Fund started a two-year programme in June 2020 to provide a one-off subsidy for low-income households in subdivided units. The subsidy, with a ceiling of HK$8,500 to HK$13,000 depending on household size, can be used to make minor improvements and repairs, buy furniture and household goods, or engage pest control services.

NGOs and other social institutions also offer help.

The Caritas Community Development Service runs activities for households of subdivided flats on Kim Shin Lane in Sham Shui Po and has set up a platform for them to give their views and approach government agencies for help.

Wong Siu-wai, its senior social work supervisor, says these efforts have encouraged households to clean the common areas in and around their flats to improve their living environment.

“ Although they still live in subdivided units, they now contribute to the community, which helps improve their well-being,” she says.

The Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui Lady MacLehose Centre has a 100 sq ft kitchen, a washing machine and clothes dryer at its Kwai Chung centre for residents of subdivided units in the area to use. About 100 residents use these facilities each month.

The centre also provides residents with legal advice and help with moving and home maintenance.

subdivided unit
Some low-income families have waited a decade for public housing. Photo: Felix Wong

Worries, optimism over 2049 target

While these various schemes are welcome, the main question is whether Hong Kong can meet Beijing’s target to get rid of subdivided flats and “cage homes” by 2049.

This was a goal set last July by the director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Xia Baolong, for the city’s administrators to achieve by 2049, when the People’s Republic of China celebrates the centenary of its founding.

Peace Wong Wo-ping, chief officer of policy research and advocacy of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, a federation of non-government social service agencies, says the existence of subdivided units reflects the problems of the city’s housing market, including the shortage of supply, lack of regulation and the inability of low-income people to meet their living needs.

He says it will take a determined effort by the city authorities to deal with the issue of subdivided units.

“ If it is successfully achieved, all residents, both rich and poor, will reach a minimum housing standard,” he says.

But Tang Po-shan, convenor of the Hong Kong Subdivided Flats Concerning Platform, a community organisation of social workers and scholars, warns that simply eliminating subdivided flats could give rise to other forms of inadequate housing with poor living conditions.

He says the government should not only get rid of such designs, but also resettle the households.

“ The key should be improving the living environment and quality of the residents,” he says.

Tong Lau
A Society for Community Organisation press conference on subdivided flat regulations. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Tang adds that many tenants are indifferent to the government’s target almost three decades from now, and some are worried about what choice they will have if these cheap units are wiped out.

He says:“ They are asking, ‘Will my living conditions truly improve after subdivided units disappear?’”

Professor Yau Yung, of Lingnan University’s department of sociology and social policy, says the key to achieving the 2049 target without driving households to other forms of inadequate housing is the government’s ability to increase the supply of public rental flats significantly.

He says the current average waiting time is too long and should be reduced gradually, to at least four years initially.

The government should also consider legislation to ban more subdivided units coming on the market.

Yau points out that this is not the first attempt to wipe out these tiny units. Former city leader Leung Chun-ying’s administration also tried to do so, but found it too difficult to rehouse affected residents because there were not enough homes they could afford.

“ The 2049 target is a good thing for Hong Kong,” Yau says. “It can be achieved, but it depends on what the government will do from now on.”

Dr Lawrence Poon Wing-cheung, a senior lecturer at the building science and technology division of City University, says the city’s political conflicts left many government policies in limbo over the years.

He urges the government to take advantage of the current stable social environment to move forward quickly with land-related policies to increase housing supply.

A former member of the Town Planning Board, he suggests exploring land reclamation possibilities, changing the land use of some areas, and raising plot ratios – which fix the built-up area on a site – to build more homes.

Optimistic that the target can be achieved before 2049, he says:
“ In a city with a highly developed economy like Hong Kong, it is unacceptable to have these subdivided units, which must be wiped out.”

*Name changed at interviewee’s request.

Part one of this three-part series looked at Hong Kong’s smallest homes and the people living in them, while part two explored the physical and mental toll on tenants.

<<     PART 1   |   PART 2   |   PART 3       

RELATED INFOGRAPHIC

Life in Hong Kong’s shoebox housing, visually explained

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Edited by Emily Tsang and Alan John
Additional web development and graphic by Dennis Wong
Cover illustration by Adolfo Arranz

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