The Unaffordable City

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Thousands of stunning skyscrapers, a glittering sea view of Victoria Harbor and enticing night life in Lan Kwai Fong are not the whole of Hong Kong. Behind the glamorous facade of this first-world city there exists third-world living quality with which almost 200,000 people contend daily.

The 26-year-old Cartal Tsoi, for instance, lives with his girlfriend in a subdivided unit in the downmarket area of Sham Shui Po. Kuldip Singh, an Indian refugee, inhabits a cubicle with a combined bathroom and kitchen in a tiny space in To Kwa Wan. Mainlander Hui He has dwelled in a sheet-iron rooftop slum for 10 years with her family.

In a recent study of 406 cities around the world, Hong Kong had the least affordable housing for the seventh straight year, beating out Sydney, Vancouver, Los Angeles, London and New York.

Desperate Solutions

Without enough affordable housing and with skyrocketing property prices, low-income families, immigrants, ethnic minorities and even young people who can’t afford the rent of individual flats are turning to desperate solutions to find a place to live – including moving into compact, sometimes-unsanitary apartments that are often no bigger than a jail cell while the government turns a blind eye.

Data released last year show most subdivided flats were located in Kowloon districts like Sham Shui Po, Mongkok and To Kwa Wan. The average area for each person was 62 square feet, with about half of tenants aged 25 to 44. The surging demand shows how people strive to live in this increasingly unaffordable city.

“I want a private and independent space.”

“After seeing and comparing more than 10 subdivided flats, I chose this one,” Cartal Tsoi said. Tsoi led me into a renovated building in Sham Shui Po. We took a lift to the third floor, walked through a narrow hallway through which only one person could pass at a time, then arrived at his home. The original flat is subdivided into five individual rooms and Tsoi and his girlfriend live in one of them.

With two small tables and a cabinet, the “sitting room” holds only two people sitting comfortably. The “bedroom” is completely occupied by a double bed. Separated by a wall is a single kitchen and a single bathroom, with each space so limited that only one person can turn around freely. “Ours is a relatively large one among the five separated flats,” Tsoi said, describing his 130-square foot room with satisfaction, “I know there is no partition between kitchen and bathroom in one neighbor unit.”

Tsoi’s room is compact, but quite neat, decorated with potted plants and a fragrance lamp. He said that though it is tiny, he regards it as a home and wants it to be lively. Before Tsoi and his girlfriend moved to this unit, they had rented a subdivided flat in Prince Edward for two months. However, that one had no partitions, poor soundproofing and paint was falling from the ceilings in a public area.

“I would like to choose a better living condition within my own ability,” Tsoi said, adding that he chose his flat because of the stratospheric housing prices. But, he said, he still wants a private and independent space.

“From a child to an adult, I have never owned my individual room before,” 26-year-old Tsoi added with a wry smile, “while I cannot afford the rent of a single flat now.” He said some young friends around him also choose to live in such subdivided units.

Overcharging the norm

Just beside this building is a housing agency covering its show window with rent advertisements. On the same street, monthly rents of single flats are all more than HK$10,000. Tsoi and his girlfriend pay HK$6,400 exclusive of electricity and water, which they pay directly to the landlord, making their unit-prices higher than that in normal flats, Tsoi said, a common problem. A survey from the Alliance for Social Protection of Low Income Families indicated that 90 percent of tenants in subdivided flats are overcharged utilities by landlords.

Tenants are always on the weak side in the balance of power with landlords, said Yat Lan Hung, organizing officer of HKSKH Lady MacLehose Center, who has visited dozens of such subdivided units.

“If tenants report to related authorities like Water Supplies Department, what the department can do is just cut the water supply rather than penalize landlords, which only harms tenants’ own interests,” Hung added.

According to the Buildings Department, if owners want to restructure their flats, they must submit applications beforehand and obtain approval of the plans and consent from the Building Authority. Since the process takes a long time and is quite complex, most landlords don’t obey the regulations, said Kin kwok Lai, convener of the Platform of Concerning Subdivided Flats in Hong Kong, “So actually almost all subdivided flats are illegal.”

Illegal units

Tsoi knows such partitioned units are illegal. “But it’s the problem of landlords,” he said. “My renting is another deal, and I have signed a contract with the owner which has legal effect.”

Only with stamp duty would the contract be legally binding, Yat Lan Hung said, while many renters don’t sign contracts because they think it troublesome or landlords are unwilling to pay the extra expense.

Tsoi said he would live here for at least one more year, and later he might move to another bigger and better one, “I also consider building my own family step by step.”

Kuldip Singh

After following Kuldip Singh through an unlocked gate and up dimly-lit stairs, I arrived at his cubicle, no more than 80 square feet, filled with a bunk bed, a small cabinet, a microwave oven on a refrigerator, and a wardrobe leaning against the wall.

“I think we need the fan.” After climbing to the seventh floor, the chunky, gasping 40-year-old turned on the fan to maximum speed.

Singh sat on the lower bunk, flapping his hands, trying to calm down. Just two feet from the bunk was one tiny space with the bathroom and kitchen together. Besides the toilet, there was food, an induction cooker, many pots and bowls. “It’s smelly, unhygienic,” Singh complained, “and I can only take a shower in the standing position.”

In addition to being unsanitary, many subdivided flats have safety problems such as water seepage, blockage of fire escapes and not enough ventilation.

Singh’s room is one of three partitioned cubicles. The narrow hallway is occupied with shoe racks, clothes are hung on the water pipes and wires are exposed outside the wall. However, there are no sprinkler systems or emergency exits.

Fire danger

In such a confined space, it’s hard to escape when accidents occur. In 2013, a pregnant woman, her two sons and a teenager died in a subdivided flat in Hung Hom when a fire broke out, because the escape routes were blocked by illegal partition walls, according to a police report.

Singh also can’t bear climbing up and down stairs every day. The room is in To Kwa Wan, where most subdivided flats are in buildings over 50 years old with no lifts. Many ethnic minorities live there.

Singh’s two neighbors are Filipino and Pakistani, but he doesn’t know much about them, just saying “hello” and “hi” when meeting each other. He also shares this room with an Egyptian who sleeps on the upper bunk although the man hasn’t come back for a long time, Singh said. “I heard he was arrested by the police several days ago, but I don’t know why,” he said.

Singh came to Hong Kong in April 2015, first staying in the Sikh Temple in the Wai Chai district, eating free food and sleeping nearby. Then he applied for welfare from the International Social Service Hong Kong Branch, waiting about nine months to get it. After searching affordable rooms for another four months, he finally found this bed space with the help of a housing agency, costing HK$3000 monthly. He said he gave the housing agency a HK$12,000 deposit. ISSHK paid all the rent for him and his roommate directly to the landlord.

No visa

Since he doesn't have a visa and isn’t allowed to work, he is living on relief from ISSHK – HK$1,200 every month, but it’s far from enough. It’s not cash but coupons or shopping cards of an assigned shop nearby, he said.

“No buy chocolates, no buy shampoo, and no buy candies,” he added helplessly, “I only choose cheap items in the shop.”

Singh said he once owned a small business wholesaling confectioneries in his Indian home town and lived with his big family in a three-story house, with separate bathroom and kitchen, while each room had more than triple the space of this cubicle. “We also have a roof where we often enjoy sunshine,” he whispered with a chuckle. “In summer we sleep there outside, sometimes flying kites. In winter, we drink tea and barbecue there.”

However, he has never gone back. The family of his middle brother’s wife didn’t agree with his marriage and fought with Singh after his middle brother and his wife went to the UK . “I miss my family,” Singh said. He often shares his life and pictures in Hong Kong to them.

“But I am not allowed to work here,” he sighed. “How can I help my family.” His wife had no work while his two children needed money to go to school, and the journey has cost almost all his money, he added.

“I hope to work here and reunite with my family in Hong Kong,” Singh said, eyes brimming with tears, “Then I will not have tension any more.”[/nextpage]

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Hui He

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.”

Epilogue

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. [/nextpage]