Bird's eye view of a sub-divided unit. PHOTO: SOCIETY FOR COMMUNITY ORGANISATION


When it comes to high housing prices worldwide, Hong Kong reigns supreme. Now, it is poised to take the crown for coming up with some of the tiniest living spaces globally as well.

The rise of elfin units, typically under 200 sq ft each, comes amid a 23-month surge in property prices – the longest for a property bull market in 25 years.

A developer, Wing Kwok Enterprises, will be setting the record for introducing the smallest units on the market, Hong Kong media has reported.

At 123 sq ft, each of its apartments in Sham Shui Po in north-western Kowloon peninsula is tinier than a standard car parking space in Hong Kong (134 sq ft) and in Singapore (124 sq ft). This breaks a previous record of 128 sq ft held by the TPlus development in Tuen Mun district in the New Territories.

More than 200 of the shoebox units will hit the market this year; each unit is expected to command HK$4,000 (S$674) in rent a month.

Property agents say Hong Kong homes are getting not only pricier, but also smaller.

Midland Realty International's account manager Thomas Kwok told The Straits Times that private developers in Hong Kong are racing to build smaller units in order "to generate the most profit". This is in part driven by greater demand from younger professionals and young couples looking to have a home of their own.

With per sq ft prices hitting records every year, such small-sized flats are easier on the pocket.

Consumers will continue to buy ever-shrinking units "because most people can only afford this kind of property", according to Mr Kwok.

"I think this trend will continue until the purchasing power (of buyers) dries up," he said.

"Back in 2014, a private apartment of about 300 sq ft cost HK$6 million. Now, for HK$6 million to HK$7 million, you can only buy a unit that's about 230 sq ft."

For the equivalent of HK$6 million in Singapore, you can buy a 527 sq ft private studio unit in the River Valley area, with change to spare.

Alternatively, the same amount can cover the cost of a three-or four-bedroom HDB flat of more than 1,000 sq ft in popular areas such as Duxton@Pinnacle, Bishan or The Peak@Toa Payoh.

Developers in Hong Kong are expected to ramp up supply of micro flats of under 200 sq ft in the coming few years, from 680 units last year to 1,110 next year, said Ms Ingrid Cheh, associate director of research at JLL.

Hong Kong, about 1-1/2 times the size of Singapore, is one of the world's most densely populated cities. Most of the city's 7.3 million residents live in Kowloon and the northern stretch of Hong Kong Island, squeezed into part of the 77 sq km of land allocated by the government for housing.

Nearly 44.8 per cent of the population live in public housing, 54.6 per cent in private permanent housing and the rest in temporary housing.

A five-month public consultation exercise is expected to start this week to ask Hong Kongers to choose from a list of 18 options to free up land to build more homes and meet the city's needs in the next three decades.

The options include land reclamation, restoring landfills, creating a 1,000ha artificial island to the east of Lantau, housing on a container terminal and redeveloping the so-called brownfield sites in the largely rural New Territories.

But observers say there will be no quick fixes for Hong Kong's housing woes because of its deeply polarised political culture and resistance by vested-interest groups .

Tied to the city's perennial housing problems are outdated land lease policies inherited from the British and still unchanged after the 1997 handover to China.

Only 7 per cent of Hong Kong's land mass is set aside for housing, half of which comprises low-rise homes in the rural areas.

Another factor is the city's dependence on land sales stamp duties for revenue. Developers bid for land parcels at sky-high sums, which are later passed on to consumers whose salaries have not kept pace with the skyrocketing property prices .

While Hong Kong is trying to move away from land sales, and to generate other revenue streams, demands from a rapidly ageing population have tied its hands.

Like her predecessors, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who grew up in a flat so small that she had to do her homework sitting on her bed, has vowed to address the scarcity of affordable housing.

She has called for "out-of-the-box" ideas to tackle the city's most pressing issue.

The double whammy of skyrocketing prices and shrinking homes has led to growing calls for the government to regulate the size of private flats.

Hong Kong's housing chief Frank Chan Fan last Wednesday ruled out imposing a minimum size on private flats being built. "If we set out some guidelines stipulating the minimum floor area of a flat, it means that aspiring homebuyers will face a minimum price for a larger unit. Will they be able to afford this minimum price? We have big reservations about this," he said.

Ms Heron Holloway, chief executive of the Hong Kong branch of non-profit organisation Habitat for Humanity, believes that moves to improve living conditions must first begin with a conversation on what constitutes a decent living space in Hong Kong.

"People are prepared to pay and live in small homes… but let's have a public conversation about what do people in Hong Kong think is too small.

"How many people should be sharing a kitchen and bathroom? How far should that bathroom be from where someone sleeps and eats?" Ms Holloway asked.


Nano or Micro flats

While they used to be under 400 sq ft, the size of these apartments is now typically half that or smaller than 200 sq ft (18.5 sqm), which represents the size of a one-car garage or one-fifth of a three-bedroom Pinnacle@Duxton flat.

On average, property agents say an apartment of 200 sq ft costs HK$6 million to HK$7 million (S$1 million to S$1.2 million). The better the location, for example, in Central area on Hong Kong Island, the higher the price range.

Mr Lee Ho, 94, in his public rental flat in Chak On House where each floor has 60 units. He likes to watch Cantonese operas while at home. ST PHOTO: CLAIRE HUANG

Public Rental Housing

About one in three Hong Kongers in 2016 lived in flats ranging in size from 215 sq ft to 645 sq ft.

Given the small sizes of homes in Hong Kong, Madam Sau Kam Ping (above), 83, considers her 200 sq ft public rental flat in New Kowloon a spacious one.

She tells ST she is contented with the surrounding environment and accessibility.

A man known only as Ah Tin lives in this coffin home. PHOTO: SOCIETY FOR COMMUNITY ORGANISATION / BENNY LAM

Coffin Home

As the name suggests, the space is just enough for one person.

Mr Lam, 65, a former waiter, says he has lived for more than two years in his coffin home in Sham Shui Po, Kowloon.

Compared with others, his coffin home is considered an upgraded version, which comes with 24-hour air-conditioning, a relatively bigger common kitchen and hot showers.

Mr Wu, 92, in his HK$1,900 a month subdivided unit of 30 sq ft. ST PHOTO: CLAIRE HUANG

Sub-divided units

A flat of about 400-500 sq ft can be partitioned into at least 10 units. That translates into an average living space of around half a parking space for one person.

For more than 20 years, 92-year-old Mr Wu (he does not want to give his full name), a retiree, has shared a 400 sq ft Kowloon flat with 10 other people.

He and his 70-year-old flatmate said they have to go to public toilets to take a hot shower as there is no hot water in their flat's common toilet.

The most common complaints from tenants are bed bugs, poor ventilation and sanitation.

OPod Tube Houses are fashioned from concrete water pipes of around 2.5m in diameter. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Concrete Pipe Housing or Tube Homes

Mooted by Cybertecture's architect James Law, these OPod Tube Houses are one of the smallest liveable spaces in the city. Concrete water pipes of around 2.5m in diameter are transformed into stylish apartments with space-saving furniture, shower, toilet and cooking area.

Mr Law said these units – each costing S$19,800 to build – are only for social enterprise projects. The first OPod Tube House multi-storey building is now being built in Shenzhen and another is planned for Hong Kong.

A container home model on the website of a Chinese company. PHOTO: HTTP://WEB. CIMC.COM

Container Homes

The Hong Kong government intends to pilot two such projects – one on the University of Hong Kong campus and the other at Science and Technology Park in Sha Tin, for staff and students.

There were reports of illegal container homes on the rental market, with monthly rents ranging from HK$3,000 to HK$5,000.

Last week, the government said a site in Sham Shui Po would be used to provide container-home temporary housing for 100 needy families.

Mr Kong Siu Kau in his cage home. An estimated 200,000 people in Hong Kong were calling a wire cage or single bed in a sub-divided apartment their home last year, according to Reuters. PHOTO: REUTERS

Cage Homes

For some of the poorest people in Hong Kong, home is little more than a metal cage.

Stripped of human dignity and privacy, hundreds of thousands live in such cages, stacked one on top of the other in tiny gritty spaces, mostly in West Kowloon.


This story was written by Claire Huang for The Straits Times. Click here to read the original story.