On Sunday, members of a government task force aiming to find a solution to Hong Kong’s housing crisis visited families living in subdivided apartments in the working-class Sham Shui Po neighborhood of Hong Kong.
Bed bugs in a bottle versus a golf course for elites in Hong Kong’s housing crisis
In a public forum afterwards, a woman showed them a plastic bottle she used to collect bed bugs. She’d found 200 in a week.
The woman said she lives in a 30-sq-ft space in a subdivided apartment, which costs her HK$1,900 ($245) a month to rent.
She lives in what’s often known as “coffin” homes, subdivided apartments that derive their name from their cramped quarters. The typical living area for each tenant is 45 square feet – about the size of a ping-pong table – according to the Subdivided Flats Concerning Platform in Hong Kong, which conducted a recent study on coffin homes.
Many of the conversions are carried out illegally, but they are often the only option for poor families, especially those waiting for public housing. According to official estimates, in 2016 there were about 210,000 people living in such subdivided units. The average size of a unit was about 130 sq ft, with rent averaging HK$4,500 ($575) a month, according to the study.
Hong Kong has had the world’s least affordable housing market for eight years in a row, and as things stand it’s only looking to get worse: The city has a projected shortfall of at least 3,000 acres of land for development in the next three decades.
The Task Force on Land Supply has a difficult time ahead of it. Last Thursday it launched a five-month public engagement exercise, with the hope of finding a consensus among Hongkongers on how to ease the city’s housing difficulties.
But the shadow of vested interests seems to lurk behind the 18 options being discussed in the exercise.
An example: on of the options is the reclamation of the 420-acre Fanling golf course, the location of the exclusive 2,600 member Hong Kong Golf Club.
Community groups insist the golf course should be razed to build homes. But it’s coming up against huge resistance from certain sectors.
One task force member, speaking on condition of anonymity, recounted a closed-door meeting with government-friendly lawmakers representing the business sector.
“We were asked to leave the golf course alone… and cooperate with developers to build homes on their land.”
Lawmaker and executive councilor Regina Ip, a member of the Golf Club, slammed those eyeing the Fanling golf course for wrongly overestimating the number of units the land could accommodate.
“Some think tanks said it could accommodate 100,000 flats. It is ridiculous,” she said on a radio program on Sunday, adding that the move could “devastate” Hong Kong’s golfing pedigree.
“There are concerns in many quarters that the consultation could get out of hand, in the sense that it will only provoke more confrontations and conflict without being able to foster a community-wide consensus,” she said.
“I think the government, sooner or later, has to bite the bullet and state its policy preference.”
Stanley Wong, the task force’s chairman, said he thought Ip was wrong to say the consultation would divide society, pointing out that it had long been split on the issue of housing.
“If we don’t do the exercise, does that mean society is not divided?” Wong asked.
The government is spending $1.5 million to promote the five-month consultation campaign.
But the last such consultation took place in 2012, and little has happened since then. The prolonged nature of these consultations, and the lack of any meaningful action that typically follows, means demand has far outstripped supply.
The result, according to Shen Jianfa, chairman of the Chinese University’s department of geography and resource management, is that prices have kept shooting up.
Shen warned that the city had lagged behind Singapore and neighboring cities in the region, where land was readily available.
Some 283,000 families and individuals are now queuing for the city’s public rental housing, and there’s an average 4.7 year wait for apartments.
In the meantime, many are forced into coffin homes… where bottles full of bed bugs await.
Reporting by Shirley Zao, Olga Wong, Naomi Ng, Sum Lok-kei, Kimmy Chung and Ng Kang-chung.