HONG KONG: Every night, security guard Chui Ji Meng, his wife and two daughters squeeze to sleep in a tiny space no bigger than a carpark lot.
Their home is located on the roof of an industrial building.
Mr Chui is living there illegally, and not by choice - he has been waiting for more than 10 years for his public housing flat. “Why is it I still can’t get a place? I’m not picky, I’ll take any location I can get,” the frustrated father told candidates for Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive at a debate earlier this year.
He is among thousands of Hong Kong residents who are forced to live in tight, squalid spaces - from "coffin homes" to small, subdivided flats - as they wait in the queue for subsidised public housing. "Coffin homes" are 20 sq ft-sized cages that are just enough for one to lie down and hang a few items of clothing.
Mr Chui’s struggles with one of the world’s most expensive property markets are highlighted in a recent Get Rea! episode on Hong Kong’s public housing crisis.
WATCH: Mr Chui’s long wait (2:28)
He is among nearly 300,000 applicants on the waitlist for public housing, according to Hong Kong Housing Authority’s figures. About one-third of Hong Kong residents live in public housing.
Mr Chui’s plight comes at a time when the housing shortage is worsening in Hong Kong, according to Ms Sze Lai Shan, a social worker from the Society for Community Organisation (SOCO), a non-governmental organisation that lobbies for adequate housing.
While official statistics put the average wait for public housing at four and a half years, many in reality wait for eight to 10 years, said Ms Sze.
“In the last term, the Chief Executive reduced the supply of public and private housing. So now, after a few years, there is a shortage of public and private housing,” she said.
Former Chief Executive Donald Tsang had halted the construction of public housing after prices plunged in the early 2000s - an effect of Hong Kong’s economy taking a triple hit from the Asian financial crisis, the dot-com bubble and the SARS epidemic.
And when the economy recovered in 2003, people started snapping up properties, resulting in a “tsunami of demand”, said Dr Li Ling Hin, associate dean of the Real Estate Department at the University of Hong Kong.
He added: “And then we have a very, very strong economy in mainland China. And some investors from mainland come to Hong Kong to buy property. So all these lead to a very, very high and sustained growth in private sector housing prices”, rendering them out of reach of typical middle-class Hong Kong residents.
SHORT OF LAND, OR POLITICAL WILL?
To ease the crunch, the government in 2014 promised to build 280,000 flats in the next 10 years. But last year, it admitted that it had yet to identify enough sites for these public housing projects.
Ms Alice Mak, chairman of the Legislative Council Panel on Housing, said that it is not easy to increase public housing supply in the short term as they do not have enough land.
But experts point to the largely unused industrial buildings located in the city.
Mr Albert Lai, policy convener of independent think tank The Professional Commons, also notes the 1,200 hectares of abandoned and under-utilised agricultural land across Hong Kong that can potentially house about 800,000 people.
“In fact, the government is not short of money to buy back this piece of land. What it is short of is actually political determination,” he said, noting that many of the members on the committee that elects the chief committee are beholden to business interests.
NOTICE OF EVICTION
For Mr Chui, his long wait was compounded by the fact that he joined the queue for a flat as a single applicant for three years, but was made to switch to the families’ queue when he started living with his wife and children - re-setting the wait all over again.
“If you are young, you will probably take 30 years to get public housing,” said Ms Sze, who has helped those on the queue find interim housing.
Mr Chui earns about US$1,000 (S$1,400) a month, too low a sum for him to rent or buy private property. Even then, the rent for his current rooftop home is almost a third of his salary.
Mr Chui considers his family’s living arrangements, which includes their own toilet and a mini-kitchen, a luxury compared to a "‘coffin home".
When the Get Rea! team visited him, his family was having their meal next to their beds, in a room partitioned off with wooden boards.
Residents like Mr Chui also live in perpetual fear of surprise checks by the authorities, as they are living illegally above the industrial buildings, which are not designed for residential purposes. There are now about 12,000 people living in industrial estates, according to SOCO’s estimates.
Mr Chui received an eviction notice from his landlord last year. He said that the landlord was under pressure to evict residents like him as the government was cracking down.
Ms Sze thinks the government should allow people like Mr Chui to live in industrial buildings while waiting for their flat.
With the fate of Mr Chui’s family hanging upon the government’s promise to build sufficient flats, and fast, frustration is building.
“Recently, I’m always quarreling with my wife because of this eviction issue,” he said. “Once we start quarrelling, I must leave the scene. Husband and wife in a tiny room - there’s no space.
“How do I take it? I must get out and breathe.”
Watch the Get Rea! episode, "The Long Wait", on Hong Kong’s public housing crisis, here.