The last place that Ms Man’s grandson wants to be is home.

For the seven-year-old, who lives in a subdivided flat in To Kwa Wan with his mother and grandparents, an ideal day out is spent riding on the MTR – it doesn’t matter where to – or crossing the harbour to Hong Kong Island to take the tram.

Clothes and other supplies on a bunk bed in a To Kwa Wan subdivided flat. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

These joyrides, Ms Man says, are one of the few family activities they can afford. “Sometimes we don’t even exit the [MTR] station,” the 50-year-old security guard told HKFP. “We just wander inside, and we read signs in different stations together. It’s good reading practice for him.”

The shiny stations of Hong Kong’s world-class subway system are a stark contrast to the homes of the city’s poorest. Ms Man lives in a 170 square foot unit, which the family rents for around HK$6,000 a month. Two bunk beds are crammed into the space, the top bunks acting as storage for clothes and other daily necessities in the absence of a wardrobe. Ms Man and her husband share one of the lower bunks, while her daughter and grandson share the other.

“When it rains heavily, water leaks through the walls,” Ms Man said, gesturing at the dark, chalky stains near the ceiling. On a humid June night, a musty smell hung in the air.

A note written by the mother reminding her seven-year-old son to put away his toys at 10 p.m., brush his teeth and go to bed at 10:30 p.m., and fall asleep by 11 p.m. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Originally from the mainland, the family has been in line for public housing since 2014, close to the 6.1 year average wait. In order to afford their current rent, Ms Man said, they scrimp on daily expenses and do not eat out even once a month.

The crux of the matter

It is families like Ms Man’s that Hong Kong’s incoming chief executive, John Lee, said he will help when his term begins on July 1.

Running as the sole candidate in the small-circle race last month, Lee said he would prioritise addressing the city’s deep-rooted housing crisis. Hong Kong is home to the world’s most expensive property market, according to real-estate consultancy CBRE.

This reality has fuelled demand for subdivided flats, whereby landlords carve up a flat – usually in older buildings – into as many as seven or eight units, renting each out individually. Around 226,000 people live in such units, which are known for their cramped living conditions, notoriously uncomfortable heat during the summer, fire safety hazards, and a host of other problems.

John Lee: Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

A study last year found that the average monthly rent per square foot for subdivided flats was significantly higher than for private housing across the city.

Many residents of subdivided flats are in the queue for public rental housing, targets for which Hong Kong has consistently fallen short of. According to think tank Our Foundation, the number of public housing complexes that will reach completion within the five-year period from 2022-26 is forecast to be 30 per cent below the government’s target.

Our Foundation attributed the slow progress to a shortage of residential land, which it said was caused by an “almost standstill” in reclamation compared to in decades past, and red tape – including “communication and requests” among government departments – in approval for development.

Kwai Chung Estate. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP

In his election manifesto, Lee said he would strive to reduce the average wait time for public rental housing, which is at its longest since 1998. He suggested allowing people to move into public housing estates before all of the supporting facilities are completed.

Lee also proposed re-introducing an “enhanced version” of the Private Sector Participation Scheme. The scheme, which invited private developers to build flats conforming to government stipulations to be sold to eligible buyers, was halted in 2002. The idea behind it was to allow residents renting public housing who had accumulated some wealth to purchase property, therefore freeing up these rental units for those most in need.

But Ng Mee-kam, an urban studies professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said she was not convinced that Lee’s proposals would significantly alleviate the housing crisis.

A subdivided flat in To Kwa Wan. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

“I don’t see anything that’s really pathbreaking,” she told HKFP.

Ng said she had heard that the government had already been allowing new residents to move into public rental housing estates before supplementary facilities were completed, meaning this would not be an entirely new policy.

At the just-built Queen’s Hill Estate in Fanling, residents were able to occupy units in January before the wet market, shopping mall and kindergartens were finished, Jasper Law, chairperson of the North District Council, told HKFP. He said that per normal practice, there is often a “vacuum period” between residents moving into their new homes and the surrounding facilities being finished.

Wong Ching House at Queen’s Hill Estate in Fanling. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Ng said neither Lee’s policies, nor those of recent administrations, tackled the crux of Hong Kong’s housing crisis – that authorities are not demarcating sufficient land for public rental housing.

“Land has [become] an important asset that is deeply tied in with financialisaton,” she said, adding that a balance was lacking between the government’s “capitalist ways” and allocating land to “take care of people’s livelihoods.”

‘Digging into our savings’

To Wong Ng, who lives with his family in a 180 square foot subdivided flat near Tai Wo Hau in Tsuen Wan, Lee’s promises mean little.

The father of two applied for public housing in 2015, when his wife joined him from their hometown of Jiangxi province in mainland China.

They pay HK$7,000 in monthly rent, an amount that Wong said was manageable before Covid-19. But the pandemic took a hit on his income. Wong, who handles luggage at the departure hall of Hong Kong International Airport, said he made around HK$13,000 to HK$14,000 a month now – down from the more than HK$20,000 he earned before.

Wong Ng in his subdivided flat in Tai Wo Hau. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

“There used to be many more planes [at the airport]. I could earn a lot more because we could pick up overtime shifts,” the 39-year-old told HKFP.

“We’ve been digging into our savings,” he added. As his wife had to take their four-year-old daughter to and from kindergarten, she has found it difficult to find even a part-time job to accommodate odd hours.

Wong was aware of Lee’s vision to alleviate the housing crisis, but was sceptical that the person in the leadership role would have much to do with his family’s eventual move out of their subdivided flat.

“We’ve already waited for seven years. I know most of my friends waited eight or nine. Given that, we should be able to get a public housing rental spot within the next few years,” Wong said. “I don’t think it matters who the chief executive is.”

A subdivided flat in Tai Wo Hau. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Sze Lai-shan, deputy director of Society for Community Organization (SOCO), told HKFP that many grassroots residents did not “dare to be too hopeful” of Lee’s promises.

“Every chief executive in the past has said they aim to tackle Hong Kong’s housing problem, but they haven’t really been able to,” she said.

Sze added that SOCO had invited Lee to visit neighborhoods and engage with the grassroots community both before and after he was elected, but his team told the NGO he had “no time.”

“We’ve all just got a ‘wait and see’ attitude at the moment,” Sze said.

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.