Tiny flats and the ugly truth they reveal

November 11, 2015 18:05
Hong Kong's former leader Tung Chee-hwa said this week that he was shocked to learn that a family of three is settling for a 170-square-foot flat. "How can one live like that?" he asked. Photo: HKEJ

I recently caught an episode of the popular TVB Sunday evening program "Dream House Decor".

In the half-hour episode that was sponsored by IKEA, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary in Hong Kong, a soon-to-be bride wanted a room to be redesigned so that it will meet the needs of her married life.

Two teams competed for the best design on how to fit in everything that a young couple could want, in a room measuring no more than 100 square feet.

There were a few things that stayed on my mind after the program. First, IKEA offered a useful tip that one can install a kitchen cabinet into the bedroom to save space. Second, it was shown that one can divide even the tiny room into sleeping quarters and workstation area using a curtain partition.

A friend, who has two young daughters, later told me that he too had seen the program and that he found it to be rather depressing to watch during dinner time.

He also said that he now has serious doubts if his daughters, one of whom is in London and the other one planning to study in Japan, would ever want come back to Hong Kong after their studies.

Welcome to the new reality in Hong Kong, where a bedroom may have to be combined with kitchen, work and shower facilities. 

With housing affordability continuing to worsen, many people from the younger generation have to settle for shoebox-sized units and make all sorts of compromises. 

You can put some of the blame on the city's first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, who failed to keep his promises.

Tung once promised to supply 85,000 units each year that would ensure 70 percent homeownership in 10 years. However, he failed to implement his grand plan as the Asian financial crisis led to a collapse in housing prices in the late 90s.

His successor Donald Tsang Yum-kuen also did not tackle the problem during his stint in office between 2005 and 2012. That left the city's current leader, Leung Chun-ying, to deal with the backlog and growing frustrations of the people.

With a long queue for public housing, together with a growing influx of mainlanders coming to work and study, Hong Kong has come up with a "small" solution for its housing problem.

It basically amounts to this: If the size of the cake remains the same while the number of claimants rise, there is no option but to carve out much smaller slices from the pie.

Thus, we are seeing a proliferation of extremely tiny apartments that are really an affront to people's dignity.

In the past year, at least three residential projects were launched that would offer studio flats measuring less than 200 square feet. But small size does not mean cheap, as almost all the units have price tags running into the millions.

Some of the tiny units had an asking price of more than HK$3 million, with some even close to HK$4 million.

The latest case is that of The Zutten, a Henderson Land project at Ma Tau Kok in Kowloon City which offered studio units of 165 square feet, the smallest units available this year. Pricing at the 300-unit single building, where the largest unit will be no more than 300 square feet, is yet to be revealed.

All this in a self-proclaimed "World City".

Given the exorbitant property prices, even some expatriates from the West are discovering that they have to live humbly, and somewhat uncomfortably, here.

Well, imported maids may be happier because smaller homes would mean less cleaning work, but it wouldn't be the same case with mainland dama, who have to adjust their lifestyle as their living rooms here can be smaller than their washrooms in China.

Even Tung, who had been Hong Kong's leader for eight years after the city's handover to China in 1997, expressed shock this week at the worsened housing problem.

On Monday, Tung said he was aghast at news that a family of three was forced to settle for a 170-square-feet unit despite a budget of HK$3 million.

"How can one live like that?" asked Tung, referring to the extremely tiny space. He also pointed out that such cramped living conditions will rob people of their sense of dignity. 

Well, we just hope that the city's current leadership, as well as anyone aspiring for the top job in 2017, has taken note of those comments. 

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EJ Insight writer