Thu, May 11, 2017 - Page 6 News List

Shoebox and ‘coffin’ homes a challenge for new HK leader


Li Suet-wen, center, her six-year-old son, left, and her eight-year-old daughter are pictured in their aging walk-up in Hong Kong on March 17.

Photo: AP

Li Suet-wen’s dream home would have a bedroom and living room where her two children could play and study. The reality is a one-room “shoebox” cubicle, one of five partitioned out of a small apartment in an aging walk-up in a working class Hong Kong neighborhood.

Into the 11m2 room are crammed a bunk bed, small couch, fridge, washing machine and tiny table. On one side of the door is a combined toilet and shower stall, on the other a narrow counter with a hotplate and sink.

Clothes drying overhead dim light from a bare fluorescent tube. It feels like a storage unit, not a home.

Li’s six-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter often ask: “Why do we always have to live in such small flats? Why can’t we live in a bigger place?” Li said.

“I say it’s because mommy doesn’t have any money,” said Li, a single mom whose HK$4,500 (US$580) a month in rent and utilities eats up almost half the HK$10,000 she earns at a bakery decorating cakes.

Housing costs are among the wealthy Asian financial center’s biggest problems.

About 200,000 of Hong Kong’s 7.3 million residents live in “subdivided units.” That is up 18 percent from four years ago and includes 35,500 children aged 15 and under, government figures showed.

The figure does not include many thousands more living in other “inadequate housing,” such as rooftop shacks, metal cages resembling rabbit hutches and “coffin homes” made of stacked wooden bunks.

It is a universe away from the lifestyles enjoyed by the rich living in lavish mountaintop mansions and luxury penthouses, or even those with middle-class accommodation in the former British colony.

Hong Kong regularly tops global property price surveys. Rents and home prices have steadily risen and are now at or near all-time highs.

The US-based consultancy Demographia has ranked it the world’s least affordable housing market for seven straight years, beating Sydney, Vancouver and 400 other cities.

Median house prices are 19 times the median income.

Beijing-backed Hong Kong chief executive-elect Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥), who was chosen in March, has vowed to tackle the housing crisis she is inheriting from her predecessor, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英).

Lam says that after she takes office in July she will help middle-class families afford starter homes and expand the amount of land the government makes available for development.

“As everyone knows, for some time housing has been a troubling problem for Hong Kong,” she said in her victory speech. “I have pledged to assist Hong Kongers to attain home ownership and improve their living conditions. To do so we need more usable land. The key is to reach a consensus on how to increase the supply.”

Prices have soared despite multiple rounds of government cooling measures, as money floods in from China.

Widening inequality helped drive mass pro-democracy protests in 2014. Young people despair of ever owning homes of their own. They lack space even to have sex, one activist lawmaker said in the fall last year, using a coarse Cantonese slang term that caused a stir.

“If we cannot solve the housing problem, there will be more social problems,” said Sze Lai-shan (施麗珊), an organizer with social welfare group Society for Community Organization. “Social tensions will increase and people are [going to be] getting more annoyed with the government’s policies.”

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