24 October 2016
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying visits a family in a subdivided flat but appears to be at a loss as to what he can do about their plight. Photo: RTHK
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying visits a family in a subdivided flat but appears to be at a loss as to what he can do about their plight. Photo: RTHK

When can we end the scandal of subdivided flats?

What are subdivided flats?

Who are the people who live in them?

The definition of a subdivided flat has been hotly debated over the years.

Very recently, in the face of public pressure, media questions and legislators’ requests, the government finally laid down an official definition: a residential flat that is subdivided into two or more units.

This year, in the Thematic Household Survey Report published by the Census and Statistics Department (CSD), the government states there are 86,400 residential units in subdivided flats across Hong Kong.

They are home to 85,500 households (or 195,500 individuals).

However, this is a serious underestimate, and the figures just don’t show us the reality, as a result of the way they were collected.

Firstly, the report limited itself to private residential and composite properties over 25 years old, excluding village houses.

In other words, the figures don’t include subdivided flats inside residential buildings that are less than 25 years old nor those inside industrial buildings, squatter huts and village houses.

Let’s take subdivided flats in industrial buildings for example.

During a raid earlier this year, the Buildings Department found more than 100 subdivided flats in several industrial buildings and has issued demolition orders against them.

More than 1,000 tenants of these flats are affected.

Some nongovernmental organizations estimate there could be more than 10,000 people living in these substandard flats across Hong Kong, and the ones the Buildings Department has busted could only be the tip of the iceberg.

Similarly, there are tens of thousands of unregulated village houses and squatter huts scattered across Hong Kong, many of which have been turned into subdivided flats.

Secondly, the methods investigators from the CSD use to identify subdivided units are simplistic, if not slapdash.

What they do is first examine the door bell, the electricity meter and mailbox of a flat, and then speak with the neighbours and security guards to see if there could be subdivided units inside the  flat.

Such a method is often inaccurate, because it is common for the units in a subdivided residential flat to share the same mailbox, not to mention that neither neighbours nor security guards are always forthcoming.

Therefore, the report’s estimate of 24,600 subdivided residential flats containing a total of 86,400 units in Hong Kong is far from accurate.

There are definitely a lot more out there.

Some also call into question the estimate in the report that the median rent of units in subdivided flats in Hong Kong is HK$3,800 (US$490), which it says accounts for about 30.8 percent of the average household income of the tenants.

Again, this could be misleading, since rent is very often not the only cost tenants have to bear.

A survey done by an NGO last month indicated that many landlords of subdivided flats overcharge their tenants for electricity and water by an unreasonable amount, which can account for as much as 5-10 percent of the total income of the tenants.

The CSD report didn’t say a word about that.

The report says the average living space per person in a subdivided flat is about 5.7 square meters, which doesn’t sound too bad compared with the average 7 sq meters per person in public rental housing.

However, this can again be misleading, because while some units in subdivided flats are occupied by single tenants, a lot more are occupied by families with two or more members, and the median living space per person, which is a better measure in this case, is in fact only 4 sq meters.

The report also estimates that about 70 percent of the tenant households of subdivided flats live in a space of less than 13 sq meters, their median family income is HK$11,800, and 90 percent of the adults have only secondary school qualifications or below.

Other findings of the report have sparked controversy.

It says 51.9 percent of the tenants choose to live in subdivided flats because they think the rent is more affordable.

A further 37.5 percent live in these flats because they are near their children’s schools or their workplace, suggesting that people live in subdivided flats because they want to.

Despite the fact that the government is presenting the figures in such a way as to create an impression that subdivided flats are meeting a demand from the public and therefore shouldn’t be outlawed, the truth is that many families have to live in such appalling conditions because they simply don’t have a choice.

Either they pay several thousand dollars a month for a unit in these flats or they will have to sleep on the streets.

Would anybody want to live there if they had the money for a bigger flat?

There is no quick solution to the housing problem in our society, but that doesn’t mean the government can delay coming up with a vision and a timetable.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has publicly said she dreamed that one day our elderly would not have to wait for years for a place in a subsidized nursing home.

I also dream that one day our grass-roots citizens will not have to wait for years for a public rental flat, so that no one will ever again have to live in a subdivided flat.

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 10.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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A member of Shadow Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee, a non-governmental organization.

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