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Urban Housing Units in Hongkong

Urban Dwellings and Well-being

Exploring Hong Kong’s Housing Landscape

by Debraj Deka


Hong Kong or ‘Asia’s World City’ is home to more than 7.5 million people. It has an area of 2,755 sqkm (1,064 sq miles) making it one of the most densified places on earth with a density of 7,126 per sqkm (World Bank, 2020). Hong Kong is currently a major business and trade Hub of Asia and the World, with more skyscrapers compared to even New York City. It is dubbed a “kaleidoscope of life” with its amalgamation of Eastern and Western cultures and people. However, despite its vibrancy, Hong Kong faces significant challenges when it comes to housing and health  for its people

To date, Hong Kong has one of the highest living costs in the world. Thus, basic housing remains a major hurdle in the city. Housing prices in Hong Kong have gradually become unattainable for the low and middle-income classes as per the various surveys held over time. This has led to the housing scenario becoming one of the most expensive and unaffordable for people living in the city.

Present Housing Condition

Hong Kong’s housing shortages could primarily be credited to improper government interventions that have heavily impacted the housing market due to the following reasons.

First, the government has been out of control of private rental and sales prices; on the other hand, government revenue generation is heavily dependent upon the sale of land to the private housing sector. In addition, Hong Kong’s welfare programs have been ineffective in reducing the waiting time for public housing, both for low-income individuals and those belonging to the “sandwich class.” The “sandwich class” refers to households whose income slightly exceeds the threshold limit for availing public housing but still struggle to afford private housing due to the increasing real estate prices. Consequently, they find themselves in a precarious situation, caught between limited support and continuously escalating property costs(Jane Du, 2021).

As Hong Kong tops one of the highest real estate markets in the world, high living costs have had a detrimental effect on the financial situation of Hong Kong families. Further, it doesn’t end only with the high real estate prices, it gets coupled with the high prices of necessities, thus increasing the capital requirement for surviving the urban jungle. The median income to housing price ratio is more than 18, which interprets that a person would have to save for 18 years without spending anything on any necessities such as food, clothing, healthcare, etc to buy a house.

The average cost to buy a 60 sqm flat is approximately  $US1.24 million, making it one of the most expensive real estate market globally (CNBC, 2019). Another hurdle for buyers is the huge 40% down payment on the value of the flat which is nearly astronomical to pay once. Even then, they still have to devote nearly 60% of their monthly income to repay the mortgage. As a result, the living standards in Hong Kong are generally inferior compared to those in other advanced economies.

Unmasking Hong Kong’s Housing Dilemma

The housing scenario of Hong Kong could be brought down to some key challenges. They are as follows:

Lack of availability of land and redevelopment programs for housing programs

The land area in Hong Kong is about 1,110 sq km, however, only 25% of the land use is being utilized. The total percentage of land used for residential which include private residential, public housing and rural settlements sums up to 6.9% (28% of developed land). This indeed brings in a huge task of managing the ever-increasing density which currently is more than 7,000 per sqkm. Over 70% of the land is reserved for green and forest areas which is left beyond the scope of any form of development which adversely impacts the availability of land for development.(Caixin Global, 2021).

Land Use Map of Hongkong

Figure 1: Land Use Map of Hong kong ( Source: Department of Geography, The Chinese University of Hong Kong)

Furthermore, various redevelopment projects which include Mega and capital-intensive projects like land reclamation for increasing residential areas primarily focusing on public housing have been relatively slow-paced compared to rising housing needs. This ultimately leads to increasing woes and a plethora of other difficulties which affects not only the poor but ultimately affects the entire region. Additionally, there has been a significant focus on converting land use from non-residential to residential land use but has been slow-paced and polarised opinions have resulted in delays and barriers in the process.

Lesser/ minimal impact of Public Policies on revitalising public housing

Over the years, the Hong Kong government tried to devise many policies to bring the exponential rise of property prices in check. There have been several flagship schemes such as the 10-year plan, Homeownership program, Sandwich class housing schemes, and 85,000 schemes, with the primary aim of producing affordable housing for the targeted class. Despite the extensive public housing programs, more than 52% of the total population lived in private permanent housing (Hong Kong Housing Authority, 2010).

As per Hong Kong’s Home Affairs Department’s (2023) Database, more than two-thirds of the city buildings are 30 years and older and lack any form of building management, which if left unchecked could lead to issues of inhabitants’ safety.

Rise of Subdivided units

Subdivided Flat in Hongkong

Figure 2: Subdivided Flat, Hongkong( Source:Benny Lam)

From the 1950s, political instability in mainland China resulted in a huge influx of population which resulted in the rapid rise of informal settlements, primarily squatters.  This has significantly increased the population in the lower income categories and those dependent on it. Though there have been extensive policies aimed at the lower-income category, the minimal impact of public policies on housing needs led to the start of subdivided housing to accommodate the rapidly rising urban poor. These subdivided flats were a clear violation of the building by-laws of the reason.

As stated by Associated Free Press, 2010, ‘Far too often, people are found living in squalor and filth, confronted with terrible conditions. Blatant disregard for building codes during the construction of these units frequently results in significant safety threats to tenants. The absence of proper fire safety procedures and exit strategies has led to large-scale disasters. This doesn’t just end just in the building units but has led to a chain action of making the environment surrounding vulnerable to communicable diseases as well as overall affecting the quality of life.

Major Findings

A report of the Task Force for the Study on Tenancy Control of Subdivided Units 2021, published by the Transport and Housing Bureau, estimated 110,008 subdivided units housing 226,340 people, which is about 3% of the city’s 7.5 million population. The median area of these units was 124 sq. ft., but it was found that there were as small as 20 sq. ft. Most of these units were found in Kowloon which is about 60% of all the identified units. The other 24% are in the New Territories and the rest are in Hong Kong Island. The number of households residing in subdivided flats is increasing at a staggering rate every year. Census and Statistics Department’s 2021 Population Census reveals a 17% increase from 2016 to 2021 in households residing in subdivided flats which is a significant rise.

These subdivided flats prove to be a huge threat to basic living conditions for the people as it denies the minimum space requirement per person for holistic growth and development. Along with it, certain units like ‘Cage homes’ or ‘coffin homes’ are cramped living spaces comprising small, partitioned units stacked on top of one another, with flimsy wooden boards or wire mesh separating them. This proves particularly adverse during the developmental stage of individuals aged between 0 to 18 years as it doesn’t just impact physical growth and development but also has detrimental effects on mental and social growth ultimately leading to chronic diseases and illness.

Impact on Public Health

A study conducted in 2018 by Jinhua Wang and published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health revealed the direct relationship that was created between the built environment and the rise of diseases. The experiment was conducted using the Health survey and SF-12 PCS MSC method which is a short-form survey consisting of 12 questions. It acts as a multipurpose health scale that is psychometrically sound as a large-population survey. The major findings of the study revealed that the lower and middle class was more vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, being more sensitive to both hot and cold climates. They were also more affected by too-noisy neighbours or loud parties (p < 0.05) despite being less sensitive to community/housing conditions. Along with it, an increase in one community/ housing issue resulted in a significant rise in the number of associated problems when compared to the other classes.

Major findings from Surveys and Studies

Furthermore, other studies conducted by different agencies and NGOs reveal the same trend. A survey conducted by NGO Caritas Community surveyed 527 households in the year 2020 and 2021 living in inadequate housing, including subdivided units and asked tenants to score their physical and mental well-being on a scale of up to 100. The results revealed 3 out of 5 scored below 50 for physical health, and more than 9 in 10 scored below 50 for mental health. Many suffered muscle strain, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory problems, as well as mental disorders, and some blamed their poor living conditions (SNMP, 2022). Furthermore, the students who are residing in such housing conditions are having a higher risk of eye problems due to lack of natural light and spinal problems due to studying in bed.

A survey by  Kwai Chung Subdivided Flat Residents Alliance , found that about 3 out of 4 of 78 people living in subdivided flats have suffered some form of depression, and 2 out of 5 have some form of anxiety (South China Morning Post, 2022). Furthermore, a study of 104 households living in the subdivided flats in Kwai Tsing district, surveyed HKSKH Lady MacLehose Centre revealed 80% surveyed suffered from mental distress. The follow-up study revealed that signs of depression and/or anxiety were displayed by seven of them, while two were diagnosed with a mental disorder.

The lack of escape routes and the inhumanly small spaces available force most of the inhabitants into conflicts. Despite taking more than 50 percent of their income, it becomes the only form of housing available to them. The adverse conditions, such as the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic, were further exacerbated by this situation. Due to the rapid increase in Covid cases, people were forced to reside on rooftops and stairs.


Urban Landscape of Hong Kong

This entire saga brings in two major questions. First, to what extent can environmental policies be implemented costing basic affordability? The existing scenario indulges in many compromises which would have to be made to suffice the basic need for housing. This involves a compromise with the rich flora and fauna.

Secondly, how policies could be formulated which can bring in welfare for the increasing inflow of economically weaker sections.With private players dominant in the city’s economy, this poses a huge challenge as well as a barrier to the development of the affordable housing sector. The impact, however, translating to the mental, physical and psychological health of the inmates brings in a much larger threat, particularly the lower and middle-income groups. They have been exposed to inhumane conditions which have not only impacted them but the overall livable quality of Hong Kong.

This densified and congested built form has most impacted mental health with an increase in depression, anxiety and other mental states. The Hong Kong Housing Society Universal Design Guidelines (2005) note that ‘the dimension of living space can affect the psychological health and wellbeing of residents, particularly those who spend long periods at home.’  However, 47% of homes in Hong Kong have a floor area under 40 sqm; a further 43.4% have 40–70 sqm which is below the standardised sizes for  holistic growth and development. (Hong Kong Housing Authority, 2014).

The degradation of health fundamentally affects not only the cultural life of a city but also its economy and the accumulation and generation of capital. This raises a significant question about how the challenge to basic livability is impacting the health and well-being of the people living in Hong Kong.


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