It's time we did something about caged homes

June 18, 2021 10:13
Photo: AFP

Caged homes. A term employed to denote “spaces” that could range anywhere from 100 sq. ft. apartments with sprawling sewage pipes and crisscrossed overhead wires and dripping roofs and broken pipes… to sweltering wooden and iron cubicles – twenty of them stacked¬¬¬¬ in a single apartment, some of them measuring no larger than two feet, by three feet, by four feet.

In this city with one million millionaires, another million or so lives under the poverty line. Amongst these, 200,000 are tenants of “homes” such as the ones outlined above – they are all but homes in name only. Homes to bodies, perhaps, but not homes that offer dignity and decency. Homes filled to the brim with filth, clutter, and despair – as their tenants wait year-on-year, with no end in sight, in their quest for a decent shelter.

Euphemistically, or “formally”, these flats are also known as sub-divided flats.

To be fair, sub-divided flats are by no means a Hong Kong-specific phenomenon, though Hong Kong certainly leads the pack globally – and sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the developed world when it comes to the scale, prevalence, and apparent flagrancy of the urban, regimented slums.

I paid a visit to a few sub-divided flats in Tsuen Wan the other day.

The conditions were, imaginably, abhorrent – though I’ve been informed (by both first-hand experiences and on second-hand accounts) that those in Tsuen Wan fare better than their counterparts in Kwun Tong and Sham Shui Po. More “spacious”, “less dilapidated” – or so is claimed.

One of the tenants was a mother of two, who’d migrated to Hong Kong to accompany her mother – who was getting on back then. She’d been on site for three years, with the “site” a daunting, compact, squeezed flat third in a corridor of five, perched precariously atop the first floor of a crumbling building. Winters are bad – they could barely get by under the frigid winds and their walls remain in perennial disarray.

But it’s the summers that really get them – a 35 Celsius sauna, coupled with dangling, broken fans and non-functional decades-old wiring and air conditioning: that’s the lived reality that confronts one in 40 of this city’s population. It’s also the awry yet apparently foreseeable byproduct of a housing regime that had, for far too long, prized transient and piecemeal solutions to structural problems.

I could go on for days in elaborating on the atrocious conditions befalling these individuals. But that would be beside the point. I want to focus on solutions.

Much ink has been spilled on fixing the city’s land and housing supply problems. I’m no expert, so I’ll defer to those who know better. But from first-hand conversations with practitioners and social workers, here are a few suggestions that may helpfully plug the short- to medium-term gap – e.g. the interim period between now, and when the government-backed housing supply initiatives truly come into effect.

Firstly, it is imperative that existing caged homes be renovated and revamped in a way that render their conditions more humane. This is not to give a free pass to caged home owners, or those who rent subdivided flats out for profit. Yet these stop-gap measures are necessary, in ensuring that caged homes cease to be bio- and safety hazards, that these caged homes – whilst compact – could at least ensure that their tenants are not rendered susceptible to contagious diseases and active jeopardy. In an ideal Hong Kong, there should be no subdivided flats, no holes in which individuals must bunker up for the evening; yet the practice of politics remain distinct from the theory. It is imperative that the government sends in more regular patrols and enforce stricter regulations – coupled with interim measures that provide for those who are forcefully evicted or left without a shelter as a result of such enforcement – to these apartments. Only through enforcing protocol and guidelines concerning rental contracts and arrangements, could the government see to ending, or at least ameliorating, the blatant exploitation extant today.

Secondly, resources. Everything costs money – that’s a truism. Yet for the poor, it is ever the more important that they be given the ropes and opportunities to lift themselves up. This is not what’s happening in the status quo. From mercurial gas and electricity prices, to the transportation and medical mundanities that one must address, to the hefty fees for tuition and after-school activities (which is not something that most families could afford) – these are all areas of expenditure that impose an active, burdensome toll on tenants. We need private philanthropy and donations – sure; yet we also need the government to more systemically quell these sources of economic angst, to alleviate the burdens that have been thrust upon these individuals. It’s high time that the state stepped up to fulfilling its onus – not just through bureaucratic trusts and sprawling charities and “social work organisations” that have skewed funding structures, but also through working with the local community in delivering the goods and services to the needy.

Finally, caged home tenants’ voices should and must be heard – by all residing in our melting pot of a city. Even if their voices are not heeded, they should be listened to and platformed. Hong Kong’s media environment bizarrely vacillates between raucous acrimony and vacuous political inanities. It’s high time for more media outlets – irrespective of their political orientations and “ideological leanings” – to shine a light on the plights of those who must work 14-hour days, only to sleep on the floor of a “space” little larger than a prison cell, as they head “home”.

A decent home is a matter of moral necessity.

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Assistant Professor, HKU