Published: 22:36, December 12, 2021 | Updated: 10:31, December 13, 2021
Can SAR eliminate subdivided flats within a decade?
By Jessica Chen

When the photos of suffocating scenes of over-crammed subdivided flats popped up on social media in 2013, the elites in Hong Kong frowned over the pathetic lives of “the deplorables”. But when the government’s report on the long-term housing strategy was released on Wednesday, everyone, from journalists to scholars, scratched their heads — the city appears to be at the end of its rope in cracking the hardest nut of the housing issue, but the light at the end of the tunnel is yet to show up.

The Long Term Housing Strategy outlines the government’s development plan in a 10-year time frame, and envisages with confidence better housing conditions in the long term. Though the report elaborates on measures to meet the rising housing demand, including more low-rent flats provided by the government, the increase in subdivided flats, however, dominated the news headlines the next day — 127,100 households are now living in “substandard” housing units, marking a new high since 2013.

Will Hong Kong eliminate all subdivided flats in the city’s jungles of skyscrapers within a decade? That is a question, but the answer is deemed to be “out of the question”, making the issue sound ever more alarming. The secretary for transport and housing, Frank Chan Fan, frankly admitted last week that the only way to solve the problem of subdivided flats is to increase the land supply for housing, which sounded hopelessly stressful as the city is notoriously short in land resources available for urbanization. Chan’s remark hit the nail on the head: “Whatever measure introduced in the short term is transitionary relief.”

Front-line social workers, however, are eager to embrace all kinds of transitionary relief for their clients who have been stuck in cramped homes for years, if not a decade, while waiting for their turn to rent a government flat at an affordable price, which is about one-third of the rent of a subdivided flat. Subdivided flats were once regarded to be a “necessary evil” for low-income households waiting for a public housing unit. However, as the waiting period grew from the promised three years to six years or even longer, the “necessary evil” turned out to be a “pure evil”. To make things worse, the once-transitionary solution evolved into a permanent social problem because of the alarming hygiene and fire hazards involved. As the demand for low-rent housing soars, more and more landlords jumped on the bandwagon to divide their flats to accommodate more tenants, and also to get more rental income.

The substandard living conditions for the less-privileged now appear to be Hong Kong’s “social tumor” that gets on the nerves of both the public and the officials. Luo Huining, director of the Liaison Office in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, said the city should “bid farewell” to substandard housing during his outreach visit to the most needy on National Day this year. Two days later, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong formed a task force aiming to banish the subdivided flats within a decade, “Goodbye and good riddance” — the DAB slogan was music to the public’s ears.

Some DAB candidates for the upcoming Legislative Council election have included housing issues in their election platform. Edward Leung, for example, boldly proposed reducing the public-housing waiting time to three years again, half of the current six years. However, it’s to be noted that neither of the two candidates for the real estate corporate seat, Howard Chao and Loong Hon Biu, have expressed their concern about the subdivided-flats plague. The big boys of the real estate sector, with their representatives in the new LegCo, are unlikely to take the initiative to propose a bill to tackle the thorny issue in the foreseeable future.

The housing issue is hot, especially after Luo’s high-profile outreach visit. A concerted effort is needed, and the new LegCo is widely expected to make a real difference. Candidate Stephen Wong Yuen-shan, head of the Public Policy Institute of Our Hong Kong Foundation, won the hearts of some voters by proposing “outside the box” thinking to outwit the tough challenge. Wong sees speeding up the construction of public housing to make available 120,000 units in the next five years through taking massive infrastructure projects, such as in Hung Shui Kiu and Northeast New Territories, as a promising solution. Wong’s voice has been echoed by other candidates, including Kenneth Lau Ip-keung, the top brass of the New Territories, and Lee Kwong-yu, an information-technology talent with no political affiliation.

Hong Kong is not the only city plagued with substandard living problems. It prevails in metropolises throughout the world, especially the overcrowded Asian cities like Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo. The latter even has a flourishing “shoebox flats” rental market catering to fresh graduates and commuters. People in Hong Kong are never short of resourcefulness and resilience. With the new LegCo coming to power next year, and a constructive rapport between the legislature and executive branches, the SAR will likely demonstrate its agility and creativity in tackling some systematic problems, including land supply. One decade might be not sufficient, especially when massive construction projects are involved, but concerted efforts with good intentions and a “can-do” spirit can be expected in 2022 and beyond.

The author is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

Please click here to see the list of 2021 LegCo election candidates.

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