Friday, 28 June 2013

The Cramped Life of the Poor

Thanks to the previous Hong Kong government administrations since the handover, the working poor now have to live in spaces smaller than a coffin.

The smallest room in a flat in a Sham Shui Po flat divided into 17 cubicles measures just 2 feet by 6 feet, compared to an average coffin which is 2.3 feet by 7 feet, though a tenant does have room to sit upright.

Hong Kong doesn't have enough social housing because, gee, the government stopped constructing them. Why is that? Is it a sign of denial that the city doesn't have poor people? Or is it because there are other more glorifying infrastructure projects that are more pressing?

The people who must rent these tiny places earn barely enough to cover the rent of HK$1,500 ($193) a month. And because there are no regulations on renovating interiors, landlords can easily subdivide their flats and electrical wiring is sketchy, the cubicles are terribly stuffy and of course washrooms and kitchens are in unsanitary conditions.

People have been killed in these "fire traps" -- nine in a fire that happened in Fa Yuen Street and Ma Tau Wai Road where four perished in Hung Hom. And yet the government still does nothing.

Is this not an urgent issue? While the government has raised the minimum wage again to HK$30 an hour, what about starting to regulate these sub-divided flats and in the meantime start constructing social housing? The Urban Renewal Authority has bought many buildings and flats in various parts of the city, some of which are sitting empty. Why not fix them up and rent them to these people at a nominal rent?

And yet the government seems to drag its feet on this most pressing issue that affects a good chunk of the city's population. Their living conditions are so horrible that it results in health problems and then this adds more strain on the healthcare system.

Sixty-five-year-old Frankie Pong Chin-pang has lived in 20 square feet for four years. "This is hell. The worst is when it's hot. But my situation is not the worst. At least I'm healthy."

He earns between HK$1,000 to HK$2,000 a month doing odd jobs and there are some days where he can only afford to eat pineapple buns.

How can Pong continue like this for the rest of his life? There will be a day when he cannot physically work anymore.

Another tenant is Chan Chi-kwong who has been on the wait list for public housing since 2004. While he earns HK$5,000 a month, he doesn't have enough money to rent a bigger place at HK$3,000 plus deposit.

Two members of the Long-Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee met with some of the tenants in Sham Shui Po the other day. They saw where they lived, having to enter doors sideways because they were so narrow and saw that hallways were formed by boards.

"Seeing that, my heart just cried out," said Wan Man-yee, one of the members. Wan and Marco Wu Moon-hoi called for the regulation of these sub-divided flats and criticized councillors who rejected plans to build public housing because it would block air flow and trap pollution.

"Come and have a look at the ventilation in these subdivided flats," Wan said.

Actually, checking out these horrible living conditions should be mandatory for all councillors and housing officials so that they know where Hong Kong residents are living.

And then they should think, "Could I live in there?" And if not, how can they make lives better for these people. They are not criminals, but ordinary people who want to make a living and live relatively comfortably. What's wrong with that?

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