As she did every day, a 56-year-old homeless woman with short black hair and black-rimmed glasses, named by police simply as Lai, walked into her local 24-hour McDonald’s in Hong Kong and took a seat at a booth. It was early in the morning, and she wore a gray overcoat and slippers.
By night, still there, she suddenly slumped over the table. Fellow customers at the Ping Shek Estate McDonald’s, in the east of the city of 7.4 million people, continued munching on fries and slurping their drinks ― until, seven hours later, someone checked her pulse and called an ambulance. Lai was pronounced dead at the scene. At 11:30 the next morning, her body was taken out through a back door. By 1 p.m., the McDonald’s was back open for business as usual.
Lai was one of Hong Kong’s McRefugees: those seeking shelter in 24-hour fast-food joints in a city where finding somewhere to live can be a serious challenge. For the last eight years, U.S. planning consultancy Demographia has ranked Hong Kong the most expensive city in the world to live in on a scale calculated by dividing the median house price by the median household income.
In Hong Kong, property costs 19.4 times the average household income. Compare that with 9.4 times in Los Angeles and 9.1 times in San Francisco ― cities infamous for their housing crises ― and the extent of the problem becomes apparent.
A Stark Divide
When it comes to housing, Hong Kong is a land of extremes. At one end is the opulence ― the average price of property had reached almost $3,200 per square foot by February, and a four-bedroom house recently sold for $177 million. Since 2003, home prices have risen 430 percent. Renting is also exorbitant. Almost half of the city’s apartments cost more than $2,550 a month, according to a report by Hong Kong real estate agency Midland Realty, which is 122 percent of the average individual’s salary.
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“Hong Kong only builds for the rich. They need to care for real people,” says Chan To, 30, a skinny man with flecks of gray in his hair who has been homeless since he lost his job as a chef last summer. Like Lai, Chan sought refuge in McDonald’s, sleeping in various outlets every night for the last four months, he says.
It’s not just fast-food restaurants that provide precarious shelter. Hong Kong’s vulnerable communities have been forced to resort to footbridges over busy, polluted roads, illegal shacks and the infamous “coffin cubicles,” where dozens of residents might be crammed into minuscule rooms also known as “cage homes.” Meanwhile, more than 200,000 Hong Kongers now live in subdivided apartments, former single flats split into several smaller ones with shared facilities, according to official statistics.
“It’s so uncomfortable,” says Laurie, a single mother who has lived in a subdivided unit with her 9-year-old daughter for two years. They have no private bathroom or kitchen.
Laurie, who asked to withhold her full name, works as a cleaner in a hotel and lives in an eighth-floor walk-up in the Mong Kok neighborhood. She earns $1,400 a month, more than a third of which goes toward rent. The kitchen is often packed with large families, and she had to buy her own refrigerator because the landlord refused. “Some people shout loudly, and so we can’t sleep well,” she says. “My girl always asks me when we are going to leave. I don’t know.”
A significant number of these subdivided apartments are in breach of safety regulations, says Yip Ngai-ming, a professor of housing and urban studies at the City University of Hong Kong. “They have been converted for a use that they weren’t designed for. The way they’ve been divided, fire doors aren’t in the proper place. Lots of it is being done illegally.”
The deadly nature of the problem was underlined last year when a fire that started in a subdivided unit, one of 17 on the same floor, spread through a building and killed three people.
Solving The Housing Shortage
For many, more public housing is central to resolving Hong Kong’s problem.
“[The government] must build more public housing,” Wong Shek Hung, the Hong Kong manager for Oxfam, tells HuffPost. “Right now, the supply is limited. Families are waiting too long to be housed. ... I have witnessed some cases of people living in public toilets ― and even some in the airports.”
Hong Kong has approximately 815,000 public rental homes and the average wait for general applicants is 5.5 years. The government has committed to building a further 280,000 public apartments by 2027 but has admitted it’s likely to miss its target by tens of thousands of units.
Last year, the government appointed a panel of housing experts from disciplines including planning, engineering, architecture and social services to consider ways to meet housing needs in Hong Kong. The panel has explored a range of potential options, from developing brownfield sites to creating underground caverns. Its report is due in the coming months.
One of the most radical ideas, however, was put forward separately last month by Carrie Lam, head of the Hong Kong government. Lam has proposed building artificial islands covering approximately 1,700 hectares (4,200 acres) to house up to 1.1 million people to the east of Lantau Island, the largest of Hong Kong’s islands. The aim is to create 260,000 to 400,000 residential homes, 70 percent of which would be for public housing, according to government statistics.
But the plans won’t tackle the imminent housing problem, says Brian Wong of the Liber Research Community, an independent nongovernmental organization focused on land and development research. Reclaiming land from the sea is expensive, environmentally destructive and could take decades to be completed, he says.
In the shorter term, some believe that rent controls could help relieve the pressure on the overheated market. “The supply has shifted towards the private market, without any control on rent, which has been rocketing,” says Angela Lui, a social worker at the homelessness charity Society for Community Organisation. “It’s become crazy. This might not solve the underlying problems with public housing, but it would certainly improve a lot of lives.”
For now, people like Chan must wait in the hope that the government implements a solution that will provide some genuine help soon. Every morning, Chan is woken up by McDonald’s staff at 7 a.m. before visiting a public library to read newspapers and search for jobs. On better days, a local church provides a free meal. Other times, he’s forced to eat leftovers discarded by diners.
“I’m so embarrassed when people look at me,” he says.
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