Life in a cage: the story of Hong Kong's poorest

Skyrocketing housing prices have forced about 100,000 people in the former British colony to live in cramped, dirty and unsafe conditions.

Yeung Ying Biu, 77, is one of thousands of people in Hong Kong live in inadequate housing because they cannot afford anything else.
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HONG KONG // For many of the richest people in Hong Kong, one of Asia's wealthiest cities, home is a mansion with an expansive view from the heights of Victoria Peak.

For some of the poorest, like Leung Cho-yin, home is a metal cage.

The 67-year-old former butcher pays 1,300 Hong Kong dollars (Dh613.4) a month for one of about a dozen wire-mesh cages resembling rabbit hutches crammed into a dilapidated apartment in a grim West Kowloon neighbourhood.

The cages, stacked on top of each other, measure 1.5 square metres. To keep bedbugs away, Mr Leung and his roommates put thin pads, bamboo mats, even old linoleum on their cages' wooden planks instead of mattresses.

"I've been bitten so much I'm used to it," he said, rolling up his sleeve to reveal a red mark on his hand. "There's nothing you can do about it. I've got to live here. I've got to survive," he said.

About 100,000 people in the former British colony live in inadequate housing, according to the Society for Community Organisation, a social welfare group. Forced by skyrocketing housing prices to live in cramped, dirty and unsafe conditions, their plight also highlights one of the biggest headaches facing Hong Kong's unpopular Beijing-backed leader: growing public rage over the city's housing crisis.

Leung Chun-ying took office as Hong Kong's chief executive in July, pledging to provide more affordable housing. Home prices rose 23 per cent in the first 10 months of last year and have doubled since bottoming out in 2008 during the global financial crisis, the International Monetary Fund said in a report last month. Rents have followed a similar trajectory.

The soaring costs are putting decent homes out of reach of a large portion of the population.

Housing costs have been fuelled by easy credit thanks to ultralow interest rates that policymakers cannot raise because the currency is pegged to the dollar. In his inaugural speech in January, the chief executive said the inability of the middle class to buy homes posed a threat to social stability.

"Many families have to move into smaller or older flats, or even factory buildings," he said. "Cramped living space in cage homes, cubicle apartments and subdivided flats has become the reluctant choice for tens of thousands of Hong Kong people," he said, as he unveiled plans to boost supply of public housing in the medium term from its present level of 15,000 apartments a year.

His comments were a distinct shift from his predecessor, Donald Tsang, who ignored the problem. Legislators and activists, however, slammed Mr Leung for a lack of measures to boost the supply in the short term. About 210,000 people are on the waiting list for public housing, about the number on the list in 2006. About a third of Hong Kong's 7.1 million population lives in public rental flats.

Leung Cho-yin, who has been living in cage homes since he stopped working at a market stall after losing part of a finger 20 years ago, had little faith that the government could do anything to help people like him.

"It's not whether I believe him or not, but they always talk this way. What hope is there?"

His only income is HK$4,000 (Dh1,890) in government assistance each month. After paying his rent, he is left with HK$2,700. "It's impossible for me to save," Mr Leung said.

Mr Leung and his roommates, all of them single, elderly men, wash their clothes in a bucket. The bathroom facilities consist of two toilet stalls, one of them adjoining a squat toilet that doubles as a shower stall. There is no kitchen.

While cage homes, which sprang up in the 1950s to cater mostly to single men coming in from mainland China, are becoming rarer, other types of substandard housing, such as cubicle apartments, are growing as more families are pushed into poverty. Nearly 1.19 million people were living in poverty in the first half of last year, up from 1.15 million in 2011, according to the Hong Kong Council of Social Services.

Many poor residents have applied for public housing but face years of waiting. Nearly three quarters of 500 low-income families questioned by Oxfam Hong Kong in a recent survey had been on the list for more than four years.

Lee Tat-fong, 63, is one of those waiting. Mrs Lee is hoping she and her two grandchildren can get out of the cubicle apartment they share in their Wan Chai neighbourhood.

Mrs Lee, who suffers from diabetes and back problems, takes care of Amy, 9, and Steven, 13, because their father has disappeared and their mother - her daughter - cannot get a permit to come to Hong Kong from mainland China.

The three live in a 15-square-metre room, one of seven in a subdivided apartment. A bunk bed takes up half the space, a cabinet most of the rest.

"There's too little space here. We can barely breathe," said Mrs Lee, who shares the bottom bunk with her grandson.

They share the communal kitchen and two toilets with the other residents. Welfare pays their HK$3,500 monthly rent and the three get another HK$6,000 for living expenses, but the money is never enough.

"It's exhausting," she said. "Sometimes I get so pent up with anger and I cry, but no one sees because I hide away."