In Hong Kong, the man with a novel solution to its housing, poverty issues
Ricky Yu found decent homes for low-income Hongkongers, by rallying people to rent out their places at below market rates — in the world’s most expensive housing market. He is one of CNA’s Champions for Change.
HONG KONG: He was visiting the homes of the underprivileged when he met a mother and son living in a unit in a building waiting to be redeveloped.
“The son was doing his homework, and I noticed that behind him, water was dripping. It had a foul smell, like sewage … The mother was mopping the floor while chatting with me,” recalls Ricky Yu. “The situation was unbelievable.”
It is the kind of situation, however, that is familiar to many of Hong Kong’s low-income families living in squatter housing or in rundown subdivided flats, which typically are about 100 square feet and rented out for nearly HK$5,000 (S$867).
Their only other choice is to apply for the government’s public housing units, but the supply — despite an increase — cannot keep up with demand.
As the housing and poverty issues hit home for Yu, a novel solution was about to take shape, born out of his belief that “the government isn’t omnipotent” and that “people themselves can work out a long-term, complementary solution”.
So in 2010, he quit his corporate job and founded Light Be, a social enterprise providing alternative housing solutions for low-income families by tapping a spirit of common goodness.
Its Light Home tenancy model is this: Landlords rent their properties to vulnerable families at below market rate for a maximum of three years — in the world’s most expensive housing market.
This housing solution is not an end in itself. Yu means it to give the tenants time to put their lives back in order by, for example, looking for stable employment, so that they can climb out of poverty.
“We hope that through Light Be, we can give them the incentive to upgrade themselves,” says the 51-year-old.
It has not been easy, but his model has worked: Hundreds of families have not only become less dependent on welfare, but have also thrived on developing themselves.
He is one of CNA’s Champions for Change, a series marking the channel’s 20th anniversary this year by celebrating 20 individuals whose imagination, talents and efforts have uplifted communities across Asia.
INSPIRED BY A NOBEL LAUREATE
Before he started his social housing network, Yu was facing “a midlife crisis”. He was a top executive of a multinational, but was wondering what else he was “chasing after”, apart from making money for his bosses and himself.
He also felt that the stress of finding affordable housing was increasing. “Many Hong Kong people have prioritised their housing needs over their own development. This isn’t ideal,” he says.
“Personal development should take priority, and housing, the means to an end.”
And having come from an underprivileged family, he knew what it was like to be poor. “Even though you don’t know these people, you’re connected in a way. We’re all Hong Kong people. I can empathise with them,” he relates.
He had three choices, he reckoned, to resolve these issues: Donate periodically to non-governmental organisations; get involved in politics; or create his own housing system, a choice inspired by Nobel laureate and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus.
The latter’s microcredit concept of lending to the poor, for them to start small businesses, changed Yu’s “perspective on the world”, showing him that “it isn’t necessary to be a charity in order to provide assistance”.
This is why Light Be grants three-year leases. “It’s like a degree course. We treat the tenants as students, who are here to learn how to develop themselves, and then ‘graduate’,” he explains.
The majority of people do have a fighting spirit to help themselves, as long as you … give them opportunities and guidance. Given enough time, they’d make changes.
From the beginning, he wanted to help single mothers and their children, whom he saw as society’s most vulnerable members. But convincing people that his programme would work was a challenge.
WATCH: A radical way to help the poor in Hong Kong (5:02)
“No one believed that landlords would … accept rent lower than market value, (nor) that the tenants would vacate the apartments on schedule,” he recounts.
Light Be’s own communications manager, Amen Tsang, was a sceptic. “When I first heard of the idea, I found it admirable but a little naive and silly,” she admits. “How would anyone use a home to help others?”
But she changed her mind after encountering a potential tenant, a mother whom Yu was surveying, whose answer to the last question — about her “biggest dream” — was to work at a construction site.
“My heart ached. As a woman, her ambition was to be a construction worker. That’s impossible! I cried for a long time,” recalls Tsang.
“I told Ricky, no matter what, this is the correct thing to do — no matter how tough it’ll be, I’ll help you and persevere."
Her boss did the legwork by going around networking, as he was not familiar with real estate nor social enterprise.
That was how he met his business partner Francis Ngai, the founder and chief executive officer of Social Ventures Hong Kong, who was “looking for game changers” and found one in Yu.
Using Hong Kong’s properties to resolve its poverty problem was “unheard of at that time”, but Ngai calls it a change that its population of seven million plus are “looking forward to” now.
WATCH: Wanted: Homes in Hong Kong (2:28)
TRUST BUILT UP, BURDENS LIGHTENED
It took almost two years, however, before they found a willing landlord, who bought a unit with her own money to see if the model could work.
“The landlord had a lot of trust in us. She felt that this experiment wasn’t only for Light Be. She saw it as doing something good for Hong Kong,” describes Ngai.
Finding suitable tenants was less difficult, with Light Be’s selection process, which starts with a referral from a social worker.
“After that, there’d be an interview session, and we’d see if the potential tenant is responsible and has plans to develop himself or herself,” Yu elaborates.
“Many (social workers) supported us, even though they found it quite unbelievable. Still, it was like, why not try? And then the trying gets better and better. And eventually, we’re working with many social workers.”
Light Home tenant Tseng Tseng says Light Be’s rules are good, so that every tenant can reside “comfortably”. “We must be able to pay the rent and must also have the capability to improve our livelihood,” says the single mother.
“My way of thinking is to do my best to meet the requirements … Being able to move into a Light Home is my blessing.”
To date, Light Be has more than 100 flats for tenants like her. And since it was set up, 80 per cent of the landlords have been renewing their contracts every three years, says Yu.
After deducting the operating costs, the earnings are very little, but the landlords are still willing to accept this little amount. So it works.
Landlord Teresa Poon, for example, is “very happy being a part of this programme” and affirms that property “can be a tool” to help others.
“They may encounter setbacks and other troubles. And I feel that we should give these people a chance. Light Home is able to do this,” she says.
Collaborations with the government and support from donors have also allowed Light Be to grow in new ways. Abandoned buildings, for example, have become the foundation of Light Be’s second housing model, known as Light Housing.
“There are many buildings left vacant. In most cases, these buildings are too small, or the land size is too small. Either the government or private developers are unable to redevelop the project,” says Yu.
So in 2016, the first Light Housing project was launched: A five-storey former textile factory renovated — with funding from a charity foundation — to provide flats for as many as 90 families who have three or more members.
These quarters have given Samuel Yung’s family a “stable” and “safe” home, unlike the squatter housing where they used to stay, which was in a “remote place”, had “many issues” but whose rent was still a third of his salary.
“The worst was when it rained. The house would leak badly. We were so uncomfortable. At times, snakes would enter the house,” says Yung, whose family has been queuing for public housing for about four years.
Their “burden has lightened” also because of their lower rent now.
STRESS ON COMMUNITY NETWORKS
Financial help aside, what also sets Light Be apart is its support system, which it hopes will make an impact on the tenants’ lives.
Activities including business start-up courses are held for Light Housing tenants; a carpentry corner is available to them; and most of them “have got to know each other”, says Yu, calling it “an initial success”.
This stress on community networks applies also to Light Home tenants, who are required to share their units. Two or three single-parent families are matched up per unit, which Light Be’s CEO says “has its benefits”, especially for single mothers.
“With co-housing, if one mother falls sick, another mother could help keep an eye on the kids,” explains Yu. “This would compensate for the single-parent family structure.”
It especially helps someone like Tseng, a cafe waitress who gets paid only when she works. Her co-tenant Feifei can babysit her girl Siu Chee, who is in Primary Three and who also has Feifei’s daughter as a playmate.
“I’m glad for the friendship between the girls,” says Tseng. “Without the Light Home programme, I think I’d be lost. I’d have to depend on my family, and I’d be a burden on them.”
Light Be’s managers play a role, too, in the support system. Every tenant household has a manager who checks on them monthly.
“Our job is to solve their current issues, and help them improve and prepare themselves for the future,” says senior manager Walter Woo.
“When we first meet the residents, they’re at the lowest point in their life. We hope that after they’ve moved in, they’d be able to adjust.”
He admits that there had been times when he thought of giving up, “but seeing the residents … make progress has been a great motivation”.
Tseng, for example, says she was once “insecure and anxious” when she was having marital problems. But she is now looking forward to “graduating” from Light Home in November with a “confidence about life”.
On average, the programme’s tenants are able to “move out and move on to a better life” within two years, says Yu. Looking back, he finds it all “amazing”.
“We not only didn’t end up bankrupt, we’ve also achieved so much,” he says. “If you were to have asked me seven years ago, I’d have said this is a mission impossible.”
But he is not done yet. The programme is expanding to Hong Kong’s outlying islands such as Lamma.
And to nurture tenants’ creative interests and talents, he is developing several Advanced Light Home projects, such as a Readers’ Light Home with many books or a Painters’ Light Home.
To this end, there will be collaborations with artists like Eric Ng, who will organise workshops for the families to “introduce art to them”.
“When (the children) return home, there are easels and paper for them to use for drawing and painting,” said Ng, who is also an education worker.
“I hope that in future, they’ll develop an interest in art. But it isn’t important if that doesn’t happen. They’ll remember that they had a good time when they were staying here.”
Yu even has plans to create a Light Village, “to bring back the village vibe, the communal bond”. “Hong Kong very much needs this. People are earning well, but they’re drifting further apart as a society,” he says.
“Making money is one thing that gives life meaning, but it isn’t the only thing. This is my life’s goal, and also the vision for Light Be.”
Watch this episode here, and also read about the Singaporean who found a way for inmates, people with disabilities to help seniors. View the details of the other Champions for Change profiles here.