Living HK-style: A cell to call your home

It may be tiny but Mr Wu is proud of how efficient his place is - with a double bed, a kitchen, an electric piano and a projector among his furnishings. At the same time, he says the fact that such cramped living has become the norm for many people i
Marketing manager Wu Tung pays about HK$7,300 (S$1,300) a month for the privilege of renting a 160 sq ft flat in Hong Kong where cramped living conditions for the majority of the population are the norm. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
It may be tiny but Mr Wu is proud of how efficient his place is - with a double bed, a kitchen, an electric piano and a projector among his furnishings. At the same time, he says the fact that such cramped living has become the norm for many people i
It may be tiny but Mr Wu is proud of how efficient his place is – with a double bed, a kitchen, an electric piano and a projector among his furnishings. At the same time, he says the fact that such cramped living has become the norm for many people is “quite ridiculous”.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
It may be tiny but Mr Wu is proud of how efficient his place is - with a double bed, a kitchen, an electric piano and a projector among his furnishings. At the same time, he says the fact that such cramped living has become the norm for many people i
It may be tiny but Mr Wu is proud of how efficient his place is – with a double bed, a kitchen, an electric piano and a projector among his furnishings. At the same time, he says the fact that such cramped living has become the norm for many people is “quite ridiculous”.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

As demand and prices soar, developers are marketing ever-shrinking units, some smaller than prison cells

HONG KONG • Sometime later this year, Hong Kongers may be able to pay for the privilege of living in apartments so small they are comparable to prison cells.

Then, a developer is to start signing tenants for a project where most flats could have a "usable floor area" of about 61 sq ft, according to a pre-construction filing with Hong Kong's Buildings Department.

That is a bit less space than what Stanley Prison, a 30-minute drive across Hong Kong island, affords its inmates. Cramped living spaces in the world's major cities are nothing new. But few places have reached such extremes as Hong Kong, where housing affordability has become a defining political issue two decades after its handover to China. The city marks the 20th anniversary of its return to Beijing on July 1.

Among the array of property cooling initiatives the Hong Kong government has unleashed, a key one is boosting the supply of new homes.

But as soaring prices put homes out of reach for most buyers, developers have been chopping projects into ever-smaller units - the tiniest category, below 200 sq ft, is commonly referred to as "nano flats".

Even so, overwhelming demand has seen such projects often selling out in as little as hours.

The overall result is not cheaper housing but rather skyrocketing per sq ft prices and rising profits for Hong Kong's developers, whose shares trade close to all-time highs. 

"This situation is really hilariously absurd," independent lawmaker Paul Tse said last December during a housing policy debate. He has lambasted the administration of outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying for "bragging" about promoting new supply when "the reality is that property prices continue to rise, but the size of flats continues to shrink".

This month, Mr Leung touted an estimated 96,000 private housing units that will come to market over the next three to four years. Chances are many of those will be tiny: The share of new apartments of less than 431 sq ft jumped from 5 per cent in 2010 to 27 per cent last year, and is forecast by the government to hit 43 per cent next year.

Cramped living conditions are nothing new to Hong Kong, and newspaper headlines have long featured the "coffin cubicles" - small spaces within subdivided dwellings - of the poorest residents.

But even white-collar professionals are opting for micro living now.

For marketing manager Wu Tung, a 160 sq ft flat has been home for more than three years at a monthly rent of about HK$7,300 (S$1,300). Mr Wu, 41, who makes more than double Hong Kong's median income, is proud of how efficient his place is, with a double bed, a kitchen, an electric piano and a projector. At the same time, he says the fact that such cramped living has become the norm for many people is "quite ridiculous".

Meanwhile, as affordability becomes an ever more contentious issue and rising costs drive expatriates away, politicians and residents are left debating a vexing question: Does a rising supply of homes, albeit tiny ones with stratospheric per sq ft prices, constitute a housing policy victory?

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2017, with the headline 'Living HK-style: A cell to call your home'. Print Edition | Subscribe