Hong Kong is known for its lack of space and notoriously high rents. Today, many live in subdivided flats, or apartments further divided into tiny enclosed spaces, underscoring the disparity between Hong Kong’s image as one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and simultaneously one of the most unaffordable.
Found all over Hong Kong, these tiny flats are the result of an imbalance between supply and demand; the increasing demand for and the scarcity of adequate housing has led to skyrocketing property prices. A subdivided flat can range from 18 to 160 square feet, with a 100-square-foot unit with a bathroom costing anywhere from HK$4,000 ($516) to HK$5,000 ($645) per month. Meanwhile, a 30 to 40-square-foot cubicle costs around HK$2,000 ($257) to HK$3,000 ($386).
The housing problem goes as far back as the 1950s, when immigrants flocked to Hong Kong to escape political turmoil in mainland China. This increased the population of low-income households in the city and sparked the beginning of Hong Kong’s public housing system. However, the Hong Kong government ended up halting the construction of public housing when the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997. Development of public housing has been sluggish since then, resulting in long waiting times that average 5.7 years to this day.
Hong Kong’s population of 7.5 million is crammed into just 25 percent of the city’s total land area; around 40 percent of land area is protected for nature reserves, and the remaining areas are reserved for new developments. The government has control over the land and leases them out to developers who pay hefty land premiums. In turn, these developers pass on high property costs to buyers to make a profit. By the end of 2017, Hong Kong had an average population density of 17,311 people per square mile, almost 200 times the average density in the United States. Real estate firm CBRE has ranked Hong Kong the least affordable city in the world in terms of housing for 10 consecutive years; in 2019, the average price of a home stood at more than $1.2 million.
“Cost of living in Hong Kong is far outpacing the rise in people’s income, therefore it’s created this incredible and escalating demand for housing that’s cheap and affordable,” Juan Du, associate professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong, told VICE World News.
Du said that subdivided flats should not be seen as a problem to be solved, because they’re actually a solution to and a symptom of Hong Kong’s larger housing problem. Rather than fixating on “solving” subdivided flats, the government needs to address the root causes.
“Because there’s such a need for cheaper housing, individuals and developers [began] to subdivide typical-sized units,” she said.
This led some landlords to conduct ramshackle building renovations in spite of building ordinances, to lower rental prices and accommodate more tenants. While there are subdivided units that are adequate for everyday living, many times, this results in labyrinth piping systems, substandard ventilation, and unhygienic living conditions.
“The government allows that because they do not have sufficient manpower to monitor these sorts of illegal renovations. And maybe [because] the government thinks that if they request [landlords] to comply with the law, subdivided flats will disappear,” Charles Ho, project director for community housing at the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, told VICE World News.
Ho said that abiding by these ordinances may increase the prices of these flats, which would then make housing even more unaffordable for low-income workers.
“In reality, a lot of poor people have a strong demand for this bracket because these flats are, to a certain extent, cheap in rent,” Ho said.
“I don’t think there [have] been established policies addressing subdivided units … partly because it’s very new,” Du said. “And I think it hasn’t yet been formally acknowledged as a substantial issue for policy.”
While there are subdivided apartments of all kinds in various neighborhoods, many of those living in the infamous “coffin homes” tend to be low-income or migrant workers who carry little to no political heft, and so are largely left out of political decision-making. The pandemic has emphasized these inequalities even further, with stay-at-home measures looking more like a punishment than a solution as tenants are confined to small units that have historically served as a hotbed for virus transmissions.
Hong Kong grappled with several outbreaks late last year and while the largest one started in wealthy communities, containment measures hurt working-class neighborhoods most. Businesses in these areas were severely hampered, with little effort from the government to offer assistance or financial aid. Similar to Singapore’s dormitories and the U.S.’ meatpacking plants, Hong Kong’s subdivided flats represent the inequitable impact of disasters among members of society — even for a virus as undiscriminating as COVID-19.
There have also been reports of landlords overcharging for utilities during the pandemic. Since most residents sign into these tenancies under informal circumstances, landlords hold more bargaining power and tenants are afraid of lodging complaints. This prompted the government to consider re-implementing rent controls through a proposed tenancy control bill.
The government has implemented a number of housing projects to address the scarcity of residential spaces, but experts say that to truly solve the problem, the needs of the community should always come first. Hong Kong’s current top-down approach lacks regard for the community, so projects end up missing the mark. For example, through her research, Du found that many residents of subdivided flats live there by choice, due to its proximity to their place of work or access to public transportation.
“People who live in subdivided units in Hong Kong can rent a proper two-bedroom apartment in the New Territories, further away from the city center. The housing supply there already exists, but the demand is not there. The demand is in the city center,” Du said.
Du added that there are many intangible factors that make living in informal settlements more appealing. She noted the tendency for communities within these settlements to have close ties with one another, where neighbors look after children while parents are at work.
“I do think there should be a shift in how we see this phenomenon, and what lessons we [can learn] and take away from it, both in trying to think about the ways in which the policy and design can improve the quality of life for communities who currently live in subdivided units,” Du said.
Ho has been working on transitional housing projects with the government that would offer temporary accommodations to subdivided flat-dwellers. These accommodations utilize idle properties and offer more humane living conditions at just 25 percent of total household income for a tenancy of up to two to three years. But because these homes rely on the consent of private owners and developers, their availability remains tenuous. Meanwhile, Du has been piloting small-scale interventions that would improve the efficiency of space for those living in subdivided flats.
“The phenomenon of subdivided flats, in some ways, is a canary in a coal mine. It allows us to examine the urgency of the issues, but the solution is not to kill the canary or move the canary somewhere else,” Du said. “The solution will not be fast and easy, but that’s not an excuse [for inaction].”