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Rooftop slums are a stark reminder of Hong Kong’s social and housing problems

Rooftop slums are a stark reminder of Hong Kong’s social and housing problems

Originally published at the South China Morning Post on October 7, 2016.

In a dilapidated shack on the roof of a Cheung Sha Wan residential building, an old woman crouches over a shallow bucket of water, rinsing a HK$5 pair of cucumbers for lunch. Sunlight seeps through cracks in a ceiling that is haphazardly constructed out of tarpaulin, metal pipes and sheets of corrugated iron. Clothes and hangers dangle from rusty wires.

The 67-year-old woman, surnamed Law, lives in the subdivided rooftop unit with nine other residents. They are struggling to make ends meet in a city with one of the most expensive property markets worldwide. Four families, each with a room, share a communal living area plus a bathroom and kitchen – all in a space less than 300 sq ft.

“When it rains, it just drips right through. We have to hold an umbrella while we’re cooking,” Law said.

Law is among an estimated 10,000 low-income residents or 3,000 households illegally living in rooftop shacks, Sze Lai-shan, a social worker with non-profit group Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), said. Trapped by rising private sector rents and long waiting times for public housing, such residents are forced to live in squalid conditions under the threat of eviction.

There were almost 200,000 people residing in some 88,000 subdivided units last year, according to a Census and Statistics Department report. About 57,100 households – 65.2 per cent of the total – lived in units spanning 75 to less than 140 sq ft.

Although the median monthly household income rose 6.1 per cent to HK$12,500 from 2014 to 2015, the median rent increased by 10.5 per cent to HK$4,200. Households spent about 32.3 per cent of their income on rents last year, the report said.

In recent weeks, the issue of low-income housing has been under public scrutiny. A photo exhibition and book by SoCO highlighting the plight of such residents is running at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre till October 9. Last month, the government also announced a plan to criminalise landlords operating illegal flats in industrial buildings. The move could render thousands homeless.

Tens of thousands of people are living in illegal units that fail to meet residential building standards, yet those on rooftops are particularly vulnerable to eviction because of their visibility, Sze said. It’s common for residents to receive eviction letters, some of which threaten to prosecute those who fail to leave within a specified time frame. Such residents could be jailed and fined up to HK$20,000 for each day overstayed on the premises, she added.

The Buildings Department does not have statistics on people evicted, convicted or fined for failing to comply with eviction orders from rooftop structures or caged houses. Yet Sze said that SoCO sees hundreds of eviction cases each year, with about 50 households going to court.

“We try to request that the government understand their situation and extend the eviction [deadline],” Sze said. “If we want the law enforced, we also have to think about how to rehouse these people. It’s a housing, social and poverty problem.”

Although the city provides transit centres for those displaced by government enforcement or natural disasters, there are only about 400 bed spaces and they take in residents for three months. They are also in the outskirts of the city and are inconvenient for those who need to travel to work or school.

A Housing Department spokeswoman said that the government also allocates one-off relocation subsidies to tenants who are displaced as a result of government enforcement actions through the Community Care Fund.

Eligible households who have stayed in transit centres for three months and have no alternative accommodation may also be admitted to further interim alternatives while awaiting public housing, she added.

“The [Buildings Department] social services teams will provide necessary social and emotional support for affected tenants,” she said.

But Sze said that the government needs to create more temporary housing and implement rent control legislation to make housing more affordable. It should also subsidise NGOs to run housing projects in vacant buildings that provide cheaper rents, she added.

“Those living on rooftops always have problems when there is heavy rain or a typhoon,” Sze said. “We know of hundreds of people who are affected.”

Originally from mainland China, rooftop shack resident Law immigrated to Hong Kong in 1979 and has lived in the unit for two decades. Having received the room as a gift from her brother, Law now shares it with her 40-year-old daughter and two grandchildren, who came to Hong Kong a few years ago.

Unbearably hot in the summer and chilly in the winter, Law’s room is about 50 sq ft and houses a refrigerator, two fans, various shelves and a bunk bed with the upper half used for storage. She shares the bed with her grandchildren in the evening while her daughter, who works night shifts as a cleaner, sleeps on it during the day.

Since Law recently retired because of poor health, the family now relies on her daughter’s monthly income of about HK$8,000, as well as government subsidies of fruit and living allowance of about HK$1,400 and HK$2,495, respectively.

“At least we don’t have to pay rent. We know it could be worse – up here we have some fresh air,” Law said. “When there’s a typhoon, we stay up all night because we’re scared that it’ll just come crashing down. The place can get flooded.”

Survival requires frugality and discipline. Every morning, Law wakes up before 6am and prepares breakfast for her grandchildren before they go to school at 7.30 am. She spends her afternoons cleaning, going to the library and buying discounted food at the market for the next day.

“We live thriftily, spending only HK$20 per meal. The meal this morning [consisted of] HK$10 for a piece of grass carp meat and two pieces of cucumber for HK$5,” Law said. “There will always be people looking down on folks like us. I don’t care. But my daughter and grandkids are embarrassed by how we live, and don’t invite people over.”

Looking ahead, Law’s biggest concern is securing public housing. She has been on the waiting list for about four years.

Housing Authority figures showed that the average wait for family applicants increased from 3.9 years in March to 4.1 by the end of June, while total applications rose by 3,800 to 288,300. The government also admitted in a 2015 report that production of public housing flats will fall short of the 10-year target of providing 280,000 flats.

“Living in subdivided units is horrible,” Law said. “I know they’ll tear this place down eventually ... but what can I do? If it happens, we’ll just have to figure something out.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Shacks on rooftops highlight problems

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