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Home sweet home … in a cage

Lianna Ng/YJI

HONG KONG – For many of us, we get to leave school or work and go home – a place where we feel comfortable and safe. 

The United Nations High Commissioner For Human Rights has specifically listed the criteria for housing to be ‘adequate’ to be: security of tenure; availability of services, materials, facilities, and infrastructure; affordability; habitability; accessibility; location and cultural adequacy. 

But eliminating inadequate housing has been an ongoing challenge for Hong Kong. 

Hong Kong is a small city, and due to its mountainous terrain, no more than 25% of the total land area is developed. At the same time, the population is nearing 7.5 million, which is even larger than the entire population of New Zealand. As a result of such a low supply of land and high demand for housing, housing prices are naturally driven up. 

Some would argue that the government is too reliant on earning revenue through land sales. This gives them less incentive to significantly increase housing supply in a short period of time, as this would reduce prices. 

The impact of the persistently high land and housing prices has certainly taken a toll on low-income families and individuals. Many simply cannot afford to live in an ‘adequate’ space by UN human rights standards. 

The two arguably worst living spaces are cubicle apartments and caged homes

Cubicle apartments are living spaces divided into wooden cubicles that are able to accommodate more than one resident each and are generally 24 to 50 square feet in size. Caged homes are also known as bedspace apartments – apartments in which there are 12 or more bedspaces rented separately to individuals, at times surrounded by mesh wire. 

Safety and hygiene are major problems in these living spaces, especially during a pandemic in an already-overpopulated city.

The apartments are too small and crowded for social distancing, ventilation is poor and residents share kitchens and bathrooms, increasing the chance of transmission of diseases. If one of the residents were to become infected, there is a high risk of an outbreak. 

Apart from this, the Hong Kong government has enacted a compulsory 14-day quarantine for anyone returning to Hong Kong from China, Taiwan or Macao. 

According to a report published in May 2020 by the Society of Community Organisation, an NGO in Hong Kong, many residents of cubicle apartments and caged homes worry that an outbreak could easily occur. 

These worries about living conditions in cubicle apartments and caged homes highlight an underlying issue of insufficient regulation. 

For example, regulations under the Bedspace Apartment Ordinance introduced in 1994 only apply to apartments with 12 or more bedspaces. The Society of Community Organization’s report showed an increasing number of illegal bedspace apartments in the past 20 years that do not comply with such regulations. 

For residents of cubicle apartments and caged homes, public housing is their only hope, according to the Society of Community Organization, but due to shortages, as of March 2020, the average public housing waiting time was more than five years. For individuals, specifically, it would be 10 years or more.

The late American psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested in his hierarchy of needs that physiological and safety needs have to be met before belongingness, love, esteem and self-actualization needs can be satisfied. 

Clearly, housing is crucial to our wellbeing, yet for some people in Hong Kong, it is almost impossible to reach the top of the hierarchy. 

Lianna Ng is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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