We need short-term solutions to the caged home crisis

June 24, 2021 08:41
OPod Tube Housing idea proposed by James Law. Photo: www.jameslawcybertecture.com

Much ink has been spilled previously on the caged home crisis – indeed, from myself, included.

Yet there remains a more pressing question to be asked – now what? We have established, clearly, that we must tackle this imminent crisis. The issue lies with, through what means, and in what ways could we maximally answer the pleas of the hundreds of thousands stranded in such destitution?

It is apparent that the caged home crisis cannot be separated from the housing and land issues that have afflicted our city for many of the past decades – but housing and land policy solutions tend to be medium-term to long-term in kind: they require not only strategic patience and a healthy bout of luck, but also forward-looking planning and implementation processes that often take years, if not a decade, to put into action. Hence an alternative question to ask is, could there be anything we could do in the short-term – in the run-up to these longer-term, remedial proposals?

There are several critical solutions that ought to be considered. The first constitutes the construction and installation of transitory housing – housing designated for exclusively individuals who a) are eligible for public housing, b) have spent a considerable amount of time in the queue, and c) meet specific criteria concerning income and occupational needs. The government and private sector alike are well aware of, and have indeed been pursuing such schemes – including, of course, the recently established Modular Social Housing Scheme at the Junction of Sung Wong Toi Road and To Kwa Wan Road. Credit must be given where credit is due.

Yet these schemes are by no means sufficient. The average queuing time remains well over 5 years – and that’s only the median. There are folks who may have to queue up to 8-9 years in order to land a flat. The government ought to investigate the prospects of working with developers in renovating and repurposing vacant industrial buildings, low-use or disused hotels and hostels, as well as – potentially – recreational youth and holiday camps adjacent to country parks, as sites for temporary housing. These sites are by no means perfect, yet are – at least – substantially better than the squalid conditions that thousands of households are trapped under as of today. Working with the private sector is crucial – and, where the private sector lacks monetary or financial incentives, it is imperative that the government offers the visceral and explicit carrot that induces them to join in on resolving the housing deluge we see today.

Second, there certainly are tenants who have opted for subdivided flats because they are more proximate to where they work, which thereby saves them crucial travelling time. In lieu of clustering and concentrating development in only select central business districts, perhaps it is time that the government considered broadening the spread of urban and suburban regions in Hong Kong, so as to allow New Territories and Lantau residents to work near their homes, as opposed to allocating an extra HK$5,000-6,000 per month to renting these deeply suboptimal spaces.

This in turn behooves Hong Kong to engage in a serious rethink of its occupational and developmental policy. Whilst rezoning and constructing new towns could by no means be accomplished within the span of a decade, there could be incentives and measures introduced by the government that nudge companies towards allowing for more flexible work (from home?) arrangements, or, alternatively, setting up district and territorial offices to cater to employees that currently have to travel long distances to work. Much of this can be done over the course of a year or so, with subsidies and directives from the HKSAR government.

Third, even if issues do persist when it comes to the dearth of space in which households can be accommodated, the government should look towards improving the quality and maintenance of these flats. Subdivided apartments should not exist, ideally; yet where elimination is not possible, the state should look towards precedents such as the capsule hotels in Japan or Taiwan as models of hygienic, well-curated, and relatively safe accommodation. Obviously, capsule hotels are intended to serve transient visitors – yet surely, there could be capsule apropos accommodation that offers users living spaces with decent circulation, lighting, sanitation, and humane conditions, as opposed to the cockroach- and pest-infested environs that many find themselves in across districts such as Kwun Tong and Sham Shui Po.

NGOs and associations specialising in the designing and architecture should be leveraged and drawn upon, as a source of inspiration and advice as the government seeks to revamp these spaces into more inhabitable residences. Whether it be the “OPod Tube Housing” idea coined by James Law, or the “container housing” proposition raised by some (cf. Science Park), these are all excellent models that the government has been or should be considering as stop-gap measures for the unwieldy housing crisis. We certainly need more – and the government should take the lead in incentivising and calling for submissions conducive towards new, innovative ideas on this – alongside other – front.

Hong Kong has a booming and vibrant civil society – it is imperative that our leaders and public servants harness the boundless creativity and zeal of our people (as opposed to stifling them), as a means of empowering those who have been left behind. Only then could we be said to be governing responsibly and effectively.

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Assistant Professor, HKU