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Poor in cages show dark side of Hong Kong boom

Posted: February 8, 2013 - 1:06am

HONG KONG — For many of the richest people in Hong Kong, one of Asia’s wealthiest cities, home is a mansion with an expansive view from the heights of Victoria Peak. For some of the poorest, like Leung Cho-yin, home is a metal cage.

The 67-year-old former butcher pays 1,300 Hong Kong dollars ($167) a month for one of about a dozen wire mesh cages resembling rabbit hutches crammed into a dilapidated apartment in a gritty, working-class West Kowloon neighborhood.

The cages, stacked on top of each other, measure 1.5 square meters (16 square feet). To keep bedbugs away, Leung and his roommates put thin pads, bamboo mats, even old linoleum on their cages’ wooden planks instead of mattresses.

“I’ve been bitten so much I’m used to it,” said Leung, rolling up the sleeve of his oversized blue fleece jacket to reveal a red mark on his hand. “There’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve got to live here. I’ve got to survive,” he said as he let out a phlegmy cough.

Some 100,000 people in the former British colony live in what’s known as inadequate housing, according to the Society for Community Organization, a social welfare group. The category also includes apartments subdivided into tiny cubicles or filled with coffin-sized wood and metal sleeping compartments as well as rooftop shacks. They’re a grim counterpoint to the southern Chinese city’s renowned material affluence.

Forced by skyrocketing housing prices to live in cramped, dirty and unsafe conditions, their plight also highlights one of the biggest headaches facing Hong Kong’s unpopular Beijing-backed leader: growing public rage over the city’s housing crisis.

Leung Chun-ying took office as Hong Kong’s chief executive in July pledging to provide more affordable housing in a bid to cool the anger. Home prices rose 23 percent in the first 10 months of 2012 and have doubled since bottoming out in 2008 during the global financial crisis, the International Monetary Fund said in a report last month. Rents have followed a similar trajectory.

The soaring costs are putting decent homes out of reach of a large portion of the population while stoking resentment of the government, which controls all land for development, and a coterie of wealthy property developers. Housing costs have been fuelled by easy credit thanks to ultralow interest rates that policymakers can’t raise because the currency is pegged to the dollar. Money flooding in from mainland Chinese and foreign investors looking for higher returns has exacerbated the rise.

In his inaugural policy speech in January, the chief executive said the inability of the middle class to buy homes posed a threat to social stability and promised to make it a priority to tackle the housing shortage.

“Many families have to move into smaller or older flats, or even factory buildings,” he said. “Cramped living space in cage homes, cubicle apartments and sub-divided flats has become the reluctant choice for tens of thousands of Hong Kong people,” he said, as he unveiled plans to boost supply of public housing in the medium term from its current level of 15,000 apartments a year.

His comments mark a distinct shift from predecessor Donald Tsang, who ignored the problem. Legislators and activists, however, slammed Leung for a lack of measures to boost the supply in the short term. Some 210,000 people are on the waiting list for public housing, about double from 2006. About a third of Hong Kong’s 7.1 million population lives in public rental flats. When apartments bought with government subsidies are included, the figure rises to nearly half.

Anger over housing prices is a common theme in increasingly frequent anti-government protests. Legislator Frederick Fung warns there will be more if the problem can’t be solved. He compared the effect on the poor to a lab experiment.

“When we were in secondary school, we had some sort of experiment where we put many rats in a small box. They would bite each other,” said Fung. “When living spaces are so congested, they would make people feel uneasy, desperate,” and angry at the government, he said.

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