The Unaffordable City
Hong Kong’s glitz hides desperation for some
Hui He’s home is a blue sheet-iron cabin, one of three units on the rooftop of an apartment building in To Kwa Wan. When I visited He at 9 p.m., she was asking her seven-year-old son to read a story and go to sleep.
“Have a seat. Please wait a moment,” He welcomed me, and kept on washing clothes in the “corridor,” an airspace put up by a fence with wire netting and a piece of iron sheet with a broken hole. At the end of the “corridor” are a separate kitchen and bathroom. The bathroom is cramped, with a toilet that must be flushed with a bucket.
“I have lived here for 10 years,” she said. Iron sheets made the room very hot. Mosquitoes, cockroaches and fleas are regulars, and the roof leaks on rainy days, He griped. “In earlier years, the landlord helped us fix it, but now he doesn’t care about it, since the repair cost will be higher than the rent.”
Hui He lives with her husband and two sons in the rooftop slum, with monthly rent of HK$3,000 and another HK$1,000 for water and electricity charges. She came from Hunan to Hong Kong to take care of her parents 10 years ago. Then her parents went back home, while her own family stayed here. “I choose this unit just because it’s cheap,” she said. When they arrived in Hong Kong, her salary was only about HK$10,000 and her husband had no work, but the rent for a single flat was over HK$10,000, which they by no means could afford.
The environment around the hut was previously very poor, He said, with a pile of junk including old furniture, a sofa, and electrical appliances left by previous tenants that at one time made it difficult to get out the door. Then, staffs of StoriesToHome, an NGO focusing on the local community in To Kwa Wan, helped clean up, painted the wall and decorated the public areas on the rooftop. “It took them more than half a year to finish all the clean-up work,” He added.
As she told me the story, a rat sprang to the back of the wardrobe. She cried out and quickly went to close tightly the door of the wardrobe as well as pack all the food with two packages. “It is not a place for human beings to stay,” she said angrily, “There is nothing good to live here. I hate this place desperately.”
Though the government provides low-income families with some allowances such as community care fund and student financial assistance, it is quite limited. “Just a drop in the bucket,” He added, “And we don’t have priority when applying for the public housing.”
He’s family has been waiting for the public housing for seven years. She said since there was a strict household income limit of the application for public housing, her elder son, who was 23 years old, still doesn’t work. “As soon as we get the flat, my son can start working.”
Government: “Enforcement action”
Besides rooftop slums and partitioned units in domestic buildings, many people turn to subdivided flats in industrial buildings, which are explicitly illegal according to the government. The industrial district of Kwai Chung is a cluster area for such units.
Subdivided flats hidden in industrial buildings are usually scattered and were not easy to be found, said Yat Lan Hung of HKSKH Lady MacLehose Center, who has visited dozens of partitioned units in Kwai Chung. Many tenants chose it for the lower rents and better living environment.
“Generally, rents of subdivided flats in industrial buildings are just half of that in domestic buildings, while the former sometimes have better decorations and bigger spaces,” Hung added.
However, because many factory buildings were used for storage of dangerous and inflammable goods, lacking enough escape exits or sprinkler systems, residents inside are exposed to higher fire risks. In June 2016, the Ngau Tau Kok fire in an industrial building killed two firefighters, which triggered the government’s crackdown on such illegal cubicles.
Though the government will provide necessary social and emotional support for affected tenants such as relocation allowances during “enforcement action,” according to an email interview with the Buildings Department (BD), they have no obligation to find alternative accommodations for tenants.
“Enforcement action” involves issuing removal orders or discontinuation orders against the owners, prosecution and a fine for offending owners. Hung said in many cases, after landlords receive the removal orders, they don’t tell tenants until the units are demolished so they can collect rents until the last minute, giving the tenants have no time to find new accommodation.
“The government asks owners to evict renters rather than directly contact with them,” said Kin-kwok Lai, convener of Platform of Concerning Subdivided Flats. “It’s like shifting the blame to other shoulders.”
“It is the government’s policy not to eradicate all subdivided flats in domestic and composite buildings but to ensure their safety,” the buildings department said. In 2016, the department issued 176 removal orders and began 122 prosecutions against owners who failed to comply with the removal orders, while Hung said there are 2,000 to 3,000 subdivided flats just in Kwai Chung, let alone those more concentrated areas such as Sham Shui Po. The government, she said, also clears up rooftop slums but they can’t be entirely eradicated.
The government appears to know such “enforcement actions” don’t work in the long run since there are not effective follow-up measures to settle the evicted tenants. Therefore, with the huge numbers and demands of these cubicles, the government is turning to a blind eye to this housing problem.
What is the future?
The root cause of surging subdivided units and rooftop slums is the short supply of affordable public housing, Kin-kwok Lai said.
When Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was Chief Executive, he slowed the construction of public rental housing and suspended government land auctions. His successor, Leung Chun-ying, also was stymied by the serious housing problems despite proposing a long-term housing strategy.
Leung did give the government a long-term direction, saying public housing should account for 60 percent of the 10-year housing supply, Lai said.
“Otherwise, the policy focuses more on purchase rather than rental,” he added, “And till now I haven’t heard about Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’ s housing policies for the grassroots.”
Yat Lan Hung suggested that in the long term, the government should not only increase the supply of public rental housing units, but also carry out the Security of Tenure again which would regulate the market and protect tenants’ interests.
The Security of Tenure dictated that previous tenants had priority to keep on renting and rent could not increase more than 30 percent. However, it was removed by the Legislative Council due to “restore the free operation of the residential rental market,” according to a government report.
In the short or medium term, the government could offer transitional housing, taking advantage of some deserted schools, Hung said.
“There are over 70 deserted schools in the Hong Kong Island and Kowloon district which could be good temporary shelters, especially for low-income families,” Lai said. But many government officials worry who could operate this kind of project and how to select qualified renters. Also, it’s a complex process to change land use regulations, Lai added, “There are still some practical problems facing the government.”
Cartal Tsoi, the young man lived with his girlfriend in a subdivided unit in Sham Shui Po, got married recently. Kuldip Singh, the Indian refugee, sent me a message later that ISS wouldn’t pay for his arrested roommate, so the landlord asked him to solve the problem of rents. Hui He, living with her family in a rooftop slum, said they finally got the public rental housing and would go to inspect the flat very soon.
Yizhen Jia is a master’s degree candidate at the Hong Kong University Journalism and Media Studies Center. This was written as a part of a media partnership with the center.