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When you have a bustling hub such as Hong Kong some issues with housing are to be expected. Since the start of the 1950s when Asia’s World City began welcoming influxes of men from China, supply and demand have never really seen eye-to-eye.
As a result, modern-day Hong Kong (still getting shelter under China’s umbrella that stops it from being its own country) has only 7% of its land zoned for housing, and with its ranking as the world’s fourth most densely populated region, buying property can cost you upwards of $1,380 (US) for a single square foot. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and while Hong Kong hasn’t quite hung curtains up yet in the bottom of the housing barrel it’s scraping it is getting close.
Hong Kong is in the midst of a crisis, and it is one that often has the terms ‘cubicle’ and ‘coffin’ being tossed around in the same sentence. It sounds a lot like an office I used to work in where morale was a little low and some people wished for death as a way out, but this is a whole different kind of problem.
Too Many People, Not Enough Room:
Hong Kong is a big city, but not big enough for all the people who live there. Numbers-wise, the land space of Hong Kong is 2,755 square km (1,064 square miles), with a population of about 7 and a half million people. That’s not so bad in the grand scheme of things, it’s way less densely populated than Manhattan, for example.
But in Manhattan, nearly three-quarters of the real estate is zoned for housing, so there while it’s darned expensive, there are still plenty of housing options in New York. In Hong Kong, on the other hand, only about 7% of the area is zoned for housing, so there is a serious shortage of actual, physical housing.
Serious. Decent living space is so much in demand, the average cost of a proper apartment is over 18 times what the average person earns.
Hong Kong’s Crisis Is Unlike Other Booming Cities:
This is not the same as the housing problem in a place like Vancouver, where the issue is simply sky-high prices. In Vancouver, there is plenty of real estate to accommodate the population. As a matter of fact, there are about 25,000 empty houses or condominiums in downtown Vancouver, because the people who own them have multiple properties and live elsewhere. In Hong Kong, there just are not enough places to live.
Of course it makes sense: when you have a bustling hub such as Hong Kong some issues with housing are to be expected. But the problems in Hong Kong go way beyond what you’d expect…and so are some of the solutions people have resorted to using.
To start with, picture a small apartment, about 400 square feet. That’s not a lot of space for a person to live in. But that would be luxury for just one person. Hong Kong’s housing problem is too big to allow one normal person to take up all that space.
The average living space for a Hong Kong citizen is only 50 square feet. That’s half a parking space. And since that’s the average, you need to consider that for every rich person who has their own house, there are a lot of poor people who cram their lives into spaces a lot smaller than the average 50 square feet.
So how small do they get?
Well, to see what some people in Hong Kong call home, take that small apartment and fill it with small wire cages, about 6 feet long and 2 and a half feet wide — that’s 16 square feet — and that’s the “cubicle” they’re renting as a place to call home.
Now you know why they’re also called “coffins.”
The Rent is Too Damn High:
How did this happen? Well, to understand where it all came from, set your clocks back a few decades, so the 1950’s. That’s when Asia’s World City, then still under the control of the British, began welcoming influxes of men from China. Ever since then, supply and demand have never really seen eye-to-eye.
Fast forward to today, and buying property is just not in the realm of the ordinary person. It can cost you upwards of $1,380 (US) for a single square foot.
Very few people in Hong Kong can afford that, and it’s getting desperate. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Like tiny cages crammed together in every available room for people to live in.
After years of a growing housing shortage being ignored by the government, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive is facing more pressure to provide affordable housing options.
Nearly half of all Hong Kong residents live in either government-owned high-rises or homes bought with government subsidies. The Hong Kong government is promising the construction of 280,000 public housing apartments and 180,000 private flats over the next ten years.
But that doesn’t help the approximately 210,000 people on wait lists for public housing right now, a number that keeps growing every year, and has doubled since 2006. Some of them have been on the lists for years.
In a survey given out by Oxfam Hong Kong, three-quarters of the 500 low-income families taking part stated they have been on a wait list for housing for four years or more.
Housing costs in Hong Kong bottomed out during the 2008 world financial crisis, but prices have also more than doubled since then, in pace with demand. In 2012 alone, the cost of a place to live rose 23%.
There is no rent control in Hong Kong, nor are there are any regulations regarding how small a residence can be.
According to Hong Kong’s Society for Community Organization (SoCO), over 100,000 currently have inadequate housing in the city.
And that’s how you get to have the cubicle housing situation where apartments are filled with upwards of thirty of those tiny cages for people to live in, stacked on top of one another. That’s thirty cages in every room, on every floor, of a high-rise apartment building.
That’s much less space than prisoners get in their cells. And these aren’t all poor people crammed into the coffin cubicles. Most of them have normal, full time jobs. If they could find somewhere better to live, they would.
They just don’t have the option.
So what’s it like living in one of these things? Well, it’s not pretty.
If it’s any indication how unpretty it is, the United Nations calls the squalid conditions of cage homes “an insult to human dignity.”
Your cage is one of many in a room. If there is a kitchen, you share it with your roomies. But there’s probably no kitchen, just a small room with a sink. The hallway walls have turned brown with dirt accumulated over the years.
You wash your clothes in a bucket. The bathroom facilities, if you’re lucky consist of toilet stalls which double as shower stalls. If you’re not lucky… well, you can imagine.
You’re covered in bedbug bites. All the time. You can’t put a mattress down on the bottom of your cage, that would just attract even more bedbugs. Bare linoleum works best, or a bamboo mat if you really need comfort.
You’re not living there for free.
These cages are rented monthly for $170 to $190 (US), which makes them more expensive on a cost per square foot than all but the most extravagant luxury Hong Kong residences. But since there are so few square feet involved, it’s still the most affordable option out there.
But as it is with everything in this wacky world, not all coffin homes are created equal. Some landlords now offer ‘luxury’ cage homes that look like space pods, but owners still pay up to $580 (US) a month and have to be crammed into a small area with 17 other pods.
These luxury pods aren’t much bigger than the cheapo cages, with the largest being 6 ft (2 meters) long and 4 feet (1.2 meters) wide. It’s the quality of the living space that makes all the difference.
They’re all crisp white plastic. If it helps, imagine what a Stormtrooper might sleep in on the Death Star. There is a definite 1970’s sci-fi aesthetic to the design. As well as a bed, each capsule contains modern amenities such as a TV, air-conditioning, a mirror and purple LED lighting, which along with the curved white plastic lends them a futuristic feel.
Right about now you’re feeling like you’re pretty lucky you don’t live in Hong Kong. But consider this: right now more than a billion people in the world living in substandard housing, and that number is expected to triple in the next 20 years.
In New York City — arguably one of the richest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world — there are more than 100,000 students registered in the public school system who have no fixed address. They are effectively homeless.
Looking ahead, the United Nations predicts that cities all over the world are about to experience explosive growth over the next few decades as somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.5 billion people migrate into urban areas by 2050.
So where will all these new city-dwellers live? Great question. Say goodbye to the single family home, for starters. Most cities aren’t able to build out, so building up is the only option. A single detached dwelling just doesn’t make sense in this new high-density reality.
As for what these new-style high-rise housing solutions will look like? The most popular visions take a page from modern working environments, where communal co-working spaces offer small, shared spaces to an assortment of different workers or companies. This translates to urban living areas that are modular and high tech, with shared living spaces.
Kind of sounds a lot like the coffin cubicles, really.
Did you know?
- After years of a growing housing shortage being ignored by the government, Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, is facing more pressure to provide affordable housing options.
- Hong Kong has approximately 210,000 people on wait lists for public housing. Some of them have been on the lists for years.
- This number is double compared to 2006.
- In a survey given out by Oxfam Hong Kong, three-quarters of the 500 low-income families taking part state they have been on a wait list for housing for four years or more.
- There is no rent control in Hong Kong, nor are there are any regulations regarding how small a residence can be.
- Apartments are now being filled with upwards of thirty 16-square-foot (1.49-square-meter) cages for people to live in.
- These cages can be rented monthly for $170 to $190 (US).
- The Hong Kong government is promising the construction of 280,000 public housing apartments and 180,000 private flats over the next ten years.
- Some landlords now offer ‘luxury’ cage homes that look like space pods, but owners still pay up to $580 (US) a month and have to be crammed into a small area with 17 other pods.
- According to Hong Kong’s Society for Community Organization (SoCO), over 100,000 currently have inadequate housing in the city.
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