Victoria Peak is the snazziest, most exclusive part of Hong Kong, with mansions overlooking the harbor and the sea. The breezes are fresh; the houses are well kept and attractive. But be prepared to pay up — even small residences clinging to the steep hillsides of this regal neighborhood cost millions, whether in euros or American dollars.
West Kowloon is not so snazzy. In West Kowloon, miserable tenants pay thirteen hundred Hong Kong dollars every month (about US $165) for the privilege of keeping their belongings as well as their bodies in a wire mesh rabbit cage with a padlock to keep out thieves. The cage is usually one of ten to twenty installed by greedy landlords in apartments that would otherwise be un-rentable. So the landlord packs ten to twenty human beings in an apartment designed for three or four and reaps a monthly rental income of between US $1,650 to $3,300 from his downtrodden charges.
The wire cages are sometimes even stacked on top of one another, two to a column like blocks. Each cage, which measures 12 to 16 square feet (about three by four feet, or four by four), has a plank of plywood or a patch of linoleum as its “floor.” On top of this, each resident may keep a blanket and pillow. A combination padlock secures the cage door even when the dweller is in the cage, to keep thieves from stealing valuables while the tenant is sleeping. Unsanitary conditions in the buildings attract billions of fleas, and tenants use powders and sprays to keep vermin from hopping from one cage to another. It is a housing picture of hell on earth.
There are housing crises today in San Francisco, New York, London, and Paris — and in other big cities in the First World. These large urban centers, like Hong Kong, attract lower-income workers seeking higher pay and a better life. But First World metropolises rarely suffer from the monstrous, animal-like conditions that prevail in slums like the notorious Dharavi in Mumbai, the Tower of David in Venezuela’s capital, or the evil “Walled City,” Kowloon’s worst squatter slum of all, which was finally demolished by tractors in 1994. The “Walled City” at one time contained some 35,000 people living on six acres of land.
The housing crisis in Hong Kong baffles experts, who point to Singapore, where nine of every ten of its three million residents actually own their own homes. In Hong Kong, something like 35 per cent today live in rentals. How did Hong Kong planners get it so wrong?
Something like 7,100,000 human beings now live in Hong Kong and its 260 territorial islands and peninsula in the mouth of the Pearl River Delta. The area of Hong Kong is 425 square miles. That many people in that small a space gives us the highest population density on the planet.
Of Hong Kong’s seven million population, some 120,000 are at the bottom of the totem pole. They live in housing that is not only considered inadequate, but that would be considered unfit for domestic cattle or chickens in America or UK. The Society for Community Organizations keeps track of these poorest of the poor. It is a social welfare group in Hong Kong that has documented, with grim photographs, filthy apartments subdivided into plywood cubicles, each housing one person, or filled with coffin-like housing crates and cages, each rented as an individual housing unit as though it were a separate apartment.
These ghastly chicken-wire cage “homes” became popular in Hong Kong during the British colonial period in the 1950s. They catered in those days mainly to single men who came from the PRC to do manual labor. Some experts claim that the number of cages has fallen, as the worst have been condemned and the owners punished with fines.
Yet today there are equally dreadful substandard cubicle apartments which now house the 1.2 million of Hong Kong’s residents, about 17 per cent, who are considered below the informal poverty line, a number that varies depending upon whom you ask. It is generally held to be at roughly half the level of our median income of US $1,600/month. This is one of the world’s most expensive cities: Try living in here on US $800 a month!
Two factors have exacerbated Hong Kong’s problems. The first has been the steady surge of new residents from the mainland, people who often struggle for years to obtain a permit for one-way travel into this special zone. The second issue is related to first, and that is the spike in global financial liquidity, which has caused previously modest homes to soar in value. Though economics often trumps planning, here as elsewhere, other communities have done far better in managing this double whammy.
In Singapore, housing authorities put in place ceilings on prices, found grants for first-time buyers, and goaded builders to increase the supply of homes. None of this is happening in hapless Hong Kong, where a cruel laissez-faire capitalism leaves thousands stranded without a safety net.
The statistics boggle the mind: Housing prices rose 24 per cent in 2012 and while we don’t have the numbers yet for 2013, they probably rose by something almost approaching that figure again. Rents are even worse in Hong Kong because renters are often poorer and more easily duped and cheated. And the poorest of the poor are often desperate. They don’t fight back. In a cruel irony, it is largely money from Mainland China, which comes from rich investors who want better alternatives than flats in Beijing, that has fueled the rocket-like ascent of housing costs.
We pray here that 2014 may be the year we see some changes. Public outrage over simmering housing scandals is reaching explosive levels. There is now a list of 250,000 people waiting for public housing.
And the forgotten cage-dwellers of West Kowloon are losing hope that anyone wants to help.