I’ve been to Hong Kong five times. My personal memories of the city have always been filled with excitement and amazement: getting precious moments with my extended family and marveling at all the wonders Hong Kong has to offer, from a grand expanse of skyscrapers stretching across mountains to the city’s delicious food scene.
What I wasn’t aware of until recently, however, is that Hong Kong is experiencing a housing crisis that the United Nations deemed “an insult to human dignity.”
Two dozen “coffin homes” are crammed inside a 538-square-feet apartment. The 4′ by 6′ wired cages, stacked on top of each other, afford barely enough space to stretch out and hang a few clothes. Dirty toilets are crammed next to sinks and stoves. Somehow, there is enough space to fit a washing machine, small sofa, and fridge.
When Hong Kong was handed over by the British to China in 1997, a “one country, two systems” policy was guaranteed. This meant that for 50 years, Hong Kong could have its own political and economic system, separate from China. The result of this agreement was a free-market economy that boomed rapidly alongside Hong Kong’s massive population of 7.3 million.
A major problem that arose from this development, however, was a severe lack of housing. After all, Hong Kong is a geographically small city with a huge population. Fortune reported in December 2016 that housing prices in Hong Kong have hit an all-time high, with the average home costing $1,380 USD per square foot. To put this into perspective, $1,380 a month could rent a three bedroom apartment in Austin, Texas.
Hong Kong’s capitalist economy and corruption from mainland China have created vast economic disparity. The wealthy enjoy lavish penthouses while the poor live in literal cages. Public housing accounts for 30% of Hong Kong’s residents, but demand currently outweighs availability: 282,300 people are on the waiting list for public housing, and the average wait is 4.7 years. In the meantime, over 200,000 people reside in coffin homes.
These dismal living standards take a toll on residents’ emotional health.
Li Suet-wen, a mother of two young children ages 8 and 6, says that her kids “fight over this and fight over that…the bigger they get, the more crowded it gets. Sometimes there’s not even any space to step.” Such conflict is inevitable; psychologists define personal space as an inherent zone that can trigger anger and anxiety if encroached on. Claustrophobia is another valid concern associated with being confined by such tiny spaces.
Hong Kong’s coffin home crisis is unfortunately just another addition to the city’s already mounting pile of societal tensions. Native Hong Kongers are angry at the influx of immigrants coming from mainland China, blaming the latter group on the city’s lack of housing. There has also been much political unrest in the region, especially among younger people taking to the streets to protest government corruption and inequality.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam stated in her campaign, “I have planned to assist Hong Kongers to attain home ownership and improve their living conditions. To do so we need more usable land. The key is to reach a consensus on how to increase the supply.”
Considering the government’s lack of efficiency in addressing Hong Kong’s many societal issues, including the housing crisis, many remain skeptical of Lam’s pledge.
“So she says she’s going to take care of these problems, but that will take at least seven to eight years,” Wong Tat-ming, a 63-year-old coffin home resident said.
In the meantime, international attention and reform are both needed to resolve this serious issue.