Hong Kong housing crisis: shoebox and ‘coffin homes’ a challenge for city’s new leader

Housing costs are one of Hong Kong's biggest problems. With hundreds of thousands on the waiting list for public housing projects, many living in the city make a home in shoebox apartments, in rooftop shacks or in 'coffin homes'.

Li Suet-wen and her son, 6, and daughter, 8, live in a 120-square foot room crammed with a bunk bed, small couch, fridge, washing machine and small table in an ageing apartment in Hong Kong. She pays HK$4,500 (Dh2,200) a month in rent and utilities. Kin Cheung / AP
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HONG KONG // 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 a working class Hong Kong neighbourhood.

Inside, a bunk bed, a small sofa, a fridge, a washing machine and tiny table is crammed into 11-square metres of space.

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 are drying above and the room is dimly lit by a bare fluorescent tube. It feels like a storage unit, not a home.

“Why do we always have to live in such small flats?”, Ms Li says her daughter, 8, and her son, 6, often ask. “Why can’t we live in a bigger place?

“I say it’s because mummy doesn’t have any money,” said Ms Li, a single mother whose HK$4,500 (Dh2,200) a month in rent and utilities eats up about half the salary she earns working in a bakery.

Housing costs are among the city’s biggest problems.

Some 200,000 of Hong Kong’s 7.3 million residents live in “subdivided units”. That’s up 18 per cent from four years ago and includes 35,500 children age 15 and under, government statistics show.

Li Suet-wen at home with her daughter 8, and six-year-old son. Kin Cheung / AP Photo

The figure does not include the 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’s a far cry from the lifestyles enjoyed by the rich living in lavish mountaintop mansions and luxury penthouses, or even those with middle-class accommodation in this former British colony.

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

The US-based consultancy Demographia has ranked it the world’s least affordable housing market for seven straight years, beating 400 other cities. Median house prices are 19 times the median income.

Thousands of Hong Kong residents live on rooftop shacks. Kin Cheung / AP Photo

Beijing-backed Carrie Lam, who was chosen in March to be Hong Kong’s next chief executive, has vowed to tackle the housing crisis she is inheriting from her predecessor Leung Chun-ying.

Ms Lam said 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 government cooling measures, as money floods in from mainland China. Widening inequality helped drive mass pro-democracy protests in 2014.

“If we cannot solve the housing problem, there will be more social problems,” said Sze Lai-shan, an organiser with social welfare group Society for Community Organisation.

“Social tensions will increase and people are [going to be] getting more annoyed with the government’s policies.”

Ms Li says her children bicker non-stop.

“They fight over this and fight over that. If there’s a day off [from school], the two of them will argue,” she said. “The bigger they get, the more crowded it gets. Sometimes there’s not even any space to step.

“They don’t even have space to do their homework.”

Public housing is the best hope for most living on modest incomes. High-rise public housing estates house about 30 per cent of Hong Kong residents. If homes bought with government subsidies are included, the number rises to about half.

Ms Li applied two years ago, but with 282,300 people on the waiting list, the average wait is 4.7 years.

Outside, Wong Tat-ming’s “coffin home”. Kin Cheung / AP Photo

Wong Tat-ming, 63, has occupied an even smaller “coffin home” for four years. He pays HK$2,400 a month for a 1m by 2m compartment crammed with his meagre possessions, including a sleeping bag, a small TV and electric fan.

His bunk sits beside grimy toilets and a single sink shared by two dozen residents, including a few single women.

On a per square metre basis, “it’s not cheap here either”, Mr Wong says. “Would you say it’s more expensive than living in a mansion?”

Leg pain from sclerosis forced Mr Wong to stop driving a taxi 10 years ago. He gets by on about HK$5,300 a month from welfare.

Mr Wong is sceptical Hong Kong’s new leader can help.

“So she says she’s going to take care of these problems, but that will take at least seven to eight years,” he said.

Simon Wong, an unemployed man, watches TV in his “coffin home” in Hong Kong. Kin Cheung / AP Photo

Chan Geng-kau, who works as a janitor, worries about being forced out of the hut he and his wife live in. It is in one of the city’s “slums in the sky” atop a terrace of a Kowloon tenement bristling with TV antennas and crisscrossed by overhead wires.

The government plans to demolish the illegal concrete and corrugated metal huts.

“If they come to clear us out, my income is not high, I don’t earn very much and the apartments out there are very expensive so I can’t afford it,” said Mr Chan, 58. With his unstable income, he’s barely able to pay his HK$2,000 a month rent.

“If I pay those rents, I can’t afford to eat.”

* Associated Press