Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan has suggested rolling out subdivided flats and dormitory-style residences as a temporary solution to the city’s lack of affordable homes.

“Hong Kong is a relatively prosperous society and we don’t lack resources. Why must some people live in such a small living space? Can we provide more space for people’s interaction and imagination, to give them hope?” he said on an RTHK programme on Wednesday.

Mosquito sized apartments
Inside a subdivided flat. File Photo: Benny Lam.

The remarks came three days after the new housing chief visited a family living in a 100-square-foot subdivided flat at the invitation of NGO Society for Community Organization.

The government does not encourage the practice of subdividing flats, saying many of them violate building or fire safety regulations. However, Chan said that – following his visit – the government should provide subdivided flats at their “production costs” to eliminate rental exploitation by middlemen.

On Wednesday, Chan said the flats should be rented out at the market price – around HK$4,000 for a 100-square-foot unit. He estimated that around 100 flats would be available at the first stage, with each of them divided into four to five 100-square-foot units.

“We are not competing with, or encouraging, subdivided housing. If we provide more spacious housing while getting a bit of rent out of it, we can improve people’s living standards,” he said.

subdivided flat
An apartment ad in To Kwa Wan says a 80-square-foot “suite” is on lease for HK$3,000/month. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

Chan said the subdivided units would be “legal, safe and hygienic.” They would also be bigger than the existing ones by subdividing an apartment into fewer units.

He added that there are many possible designs, including dormitory-style homes where residents could share the kitchen, bathroom and living room.

“On top of being just an accommodation, these homes should allow people to interact and communicate with each other more,” he said.

The housing chief envisioned the project to be run by non-profit organisations or social enterprises, with funding from charities instead of the government.

He said he had been speaking to groups and individuals about his idea, with some charities already indicating an interest in funding the project. He said he is confident about securing “a large amount of money” and homes for development into subdivided units.

frank chan
Frank Chan. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

He said he hoped to formally introduce the plan this year, adding that his idea is only a temporary solution to the city’s housing problem: “The government will still aim to build public houses for those in need in the long-run, so we are working very hard to find land to build houses.”

‘Worsen problem’

However, Liber Research Community researcher Chan Kim-ching criticised Frank Chan for endorsing the exploitative model of subdivided homes.

“Most subdivided homes are already being rented out at their market prices – what is the point of the government doing the same thing?” he said.

“With the subdivided flats, the government would push up rental prices in urban areas and legitimise the practice of ‘slumlords.’ The objective effect is that the housing crisis will be exacerbated.”

See also: In Pictures: Bridging the gap with ‘invisible’ ethnic minorities in Kowloon City, one tour at a time

subdivided flats
Inside a subdivided flat. File Photo: PBADMIN via photoblog.

He also questioned whether the housing chief’s change of tone – from renting the units at the production cost to market price – was due to pressure from landlords of subdivided flats. He urged organisations involved in the plan to clarify.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Tuesday that her government is open to all possible solutions to the city’s housing problem. She said that “subdivided flats” is just a general term, and not all of them are illegal or in contravention of fire safety and building regulations.

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.