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Τhe tiny houses of Hong Kong

Too expensive, too small and inhumane

Hong Kong, 9 January 2017 | Social

Hong Kong - the city in the southeast of China which is known for its wealth and its luxurious high-rises (high buildings) - has a chronic shortage of viable and affordable housing. Due to the extremely long waiting lists for social housing (15 years) more than 200.000 underprivileged are forced to rent on the private market. The largest share of the private rental market is not affordable, though, and the average cost of housing eats up more than 50% of people’s disposable income contributing to rising poverty. The living conditions in the cubic units are inhumane.


Els Matthysen, Communications Executive of our member, VVH - the Federation of Flemish Social Housing Companies went to Hong Kong to have a closer look at the city's housing challenges. 

Illegally subdivided units
Private landlords share their apartments into "units" or they place the so called "residential cabins" which they rent out illegally. Because the problem is not visible on the streets, the government is less likely to accurately address the issue. Authorities tend to close their eyes to unregulated rents and extremely high water and electricity costs, highlighting that "at least these people have a roof over their heads." 

Need for more public housing
Although 40% of the overall 7.7 million inhabitants live in social housing, Hong Kong has an urgent need for more. Not only are the living conditions in subdivided flats inhumane, they do not even comply with fire standards. Living in public housing is the big dream for the most vulnerable people. Thanks to the rent that is lower than the average market level, they are able to save some money to cover other basic needs, increasing their overall quality of life a bit.

Living in a “coffin-like” space of 1,5m2
Every "tenant" has a living space of 1.50m by 1m, which makes even just sleeping a challenge. The kitchen and the bathroom are actually the same room, combining not only a common sink but also a urinal - all without any shielding.

Toby, 36, lives in such a dwelling for more than one year already: "I pay a monthly rent of 1735 HKD (€ 200); water and electricity costs are not included. It is terrible to live here, but I cannot afford to live elsewhere. It's too tiny and I have no privacy." Tony is on the waiting list for public housing, but as a single person, he will have to wait for at least 10 years. Despite international media attention to the inhumane living conditions, in practice nothing change.

Living in a subdivided unit
Yay Jam has just graduated from university. She says that herself is a typical example of well-educated people living in poverty. Though she is working for an NGO with a relatively stable income, her apartment costs 6000HKD (€730) a month, which is more than half of her income. “It is very stressful and in some cases people choose to commit suicide because they can’t see any future prospect…”

Dutch container houses as interim housing
A few years ago, a Chinese delegation led by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service visited the Netherlands to learn from their housing system. They are considering to introduce Dutch container houses as an interim step.

Law Chi KWONG, a member of the Commission on poverty says: “Poverty in Hong Kong will get worse in the coming few years and I can’t see the current government being able to solve the housing issue. We need rent control and more public housing. We are trapped within our own political system. Without a constitutional reform I don’t see a way out of our housing trap”.

Text and images: Els Matthysen, Communications Executive of VVH, the Federation of Flemish Social Housing Companies. The article is a summary of the report that originally appeared in 'Fundamenten' magazine issued by VVH.

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