Some of Hong Kong's poor finally feel at home - in 290 sq ft flats

Hong Kong

WHEN Lau Kai Fai, his wife and teenage son moved into their new flat in Hong Kong last month, he thought the 290 square feet (sq ft) of space in his "module home" felt like "winning the lottery".

Among the first Hong Kong residents to move into such pre-fabricated dwellings, built as a transition for people awaiting public housing, his family more than tripled the space they used to call home. Now, they sit together for meals, instead of eating in turns.

While tiny by the standards of many cities in rich countries, the new home represents a big - even if temporary - step up for Mr Lau, 70, in one of the most crowded urban areas in the world. "It feels like a home," he said. "The previous flat was only a place to sleep."

He is the beneficiary of Hong Kong's latest initiative to ease a housing shortage; more than 200,000 people are living in subdivided flats, waiting an average of 51/2 years to get public housing.

Transitional homes are built on idle land leased by the government or private developers for only a few years, and these prefab modules can be moved and reused.

The 2018 plan only scratches the surface of the needs of one of the world's most unequal cities. More than a million of the 7.5 million people in Hong Kong live in poverty. As of June, 800 transitional homes had been built, of the 15,000 planned over the next three years.

But for the Lau family, the flat in a four-storey building in one of the oldest and poorest districts in central Kowloon is luxury. Their previous flat, one of many in Hong Kong dubbed "coffin homes", had cost around HK$5,000 (S$883.95) a month in rent.

Now the family pays HK$3,000 - 25 per cent of the income of the retired Mr Lau's wife, Tian Jiayu, the family breadwinner who works in a supermarket. They finally have a place where their son does his homework at a desk rather than in bed.

Lack of land and money are challenges to building more transitional homes. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) say the government is not doing enough.

Chief executive Carrie Lam is under pressure for housing solutions, including shoring up the transitional housing scheme. Sze Lai Shan, community organiser at the Society for Community Organisation, said: "The problem is the government is acting like a middleman rather than taking the responsibility to develop it. They are relying on NGOs and developers to do that." REUTERS

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