Recent photos of 50 impoverished and homeless people living inside an abandoned tomb in the Iranian city of Shahriar west of Tehran by photographer Saeed Gholamhoseini shocked the world and prompted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to personally order his administration to help them.
Although in Hong Kong we are lucky enough to be spared the sight of such indescribable human misery, we do have an equivalent known as the “coffin cubicle” — a sub-divided and poorly ventilated residential unit which is so small that it can only fit one person to lie down in it, but which is so highly sought-after that it often rents for several thousand dollars a month.
Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, it is the type of shelter that thousands of people call home.
Over the weekend, chief executive candidates Regina Ip and Woo Kwok-hing were invited by the Society for Community Organization to visit their headquarters in Sham Shui Po, during which they were asked to try out a “coffin-sized” bed in a mock-up sub-divided flat.
As Regina Ip put it afterwards, it was such an irony that in a wealthy city like ours, hundreds of thousands of the underprivileged live in such appalling conditions.
In fact, all these homes of unimaginably poor living conditions and small size, be they coffin cubicles, caged homes or sub-divided flats, have been around for decades, and they all have their roots in the increasingly widening gap between the supply and demand and skyrocketing property prices.
Even first-time homebuyers who have worked hard and managed to save enough to buy their own flats are not much better off, because all they got are often new flats that are no bigger than a standard parking space.
And these so-called “mosquito-size” homes, i.e. small studios or condos built by local developers, have been selling like hot cakes.
The reason for their “popularity” is simple: homes in Hong Kong have become so unaffordable that even standard-size flats we used to call “low-priced homes” in the past have become too expensive for average buyers. Real-estate developers are reducing the size of their newly built homes by half or even two-thirds in order to make them affordable again.
It is perhaps not an understatement to say that we are in the midst of the worst housing affordability crisis we have ever seen.
In 2012, when Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying assumed office, he pledged to take the housing issue by the horns by finding more land and increasing housing supply substantially.
However, four and a half years on, the housing shortage hasn’t seen much improvement.
There are other pressing issues in society such as the democratization process, the wealth gap and universal retirement scheme, but the housing problem will be a decisive campaign theme in the upcoming chief executive election.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 9
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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