Hong Kong 'mini' flats boom as govt fails to rein in record-high prices

Property prices in Hong Kong are among the most unaffordable in the world, making so called ‘coffin homes’ common in the financial hub of more than seven million people.
Freelance model Manman Luk sits inside her 100 sq ft sub-divided unit in Hong Kong.
Freelance model Manman Luk sits inside her 100 sq ft sub-divided unit in Hong Kong. PHOTO: REUTERS
 Unemployed Hong Kong resident Simon Wong watching TV inside his 4-by-6 foot partitioned unit.
Unemployed Hong Kong resident Simon Wong watching TV inside his 4-by-6 foot partitioned unit. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - For part-time furniture mover Kong Ngai Lam, 26, home is the bottom half of a bunk bed inside a tiny room that fits little else. Nearly 200,000 Hong Kong residents like him call a wire cage or bed in partitioned apartments their home.

Making housing more affordable was among outgoing Hong Kong leader Leung Chun Ying's top priorities when he took office in 2012, but his administration has been unable to rein in skyrocketing prices that have added to discontent in the city.

"Over the past four years, despite a number of measures by the current-term government which has successfully curbed external, investment and speculative demands, the difficulty in achieving home ownership remains an unresolved problem," Leung said in his swansong policy address on Wednesday (Jan 18).

High property prices and rents posed "the gravest potential hazard to the Hong Kong community as many families have no choice but to live in subdivided units, even in industrial buildings", Leung added.

Property prices have surged nearly 50 per cent to historic highs since he took office, according to government data, and tiny living spaces have become increasingly common.

About 100,000 people under the age of 35, including children, make up half of those occupying such partitioned units, a government report showed. Non-government organisations say the real numbers are higher.

These units, measuring half the size of a standard carpark space at an average of 5.8 sq m, are getting more expensive too.

Median rents surged 10.5 per cent to HK$4,200 (S$768.95) in 2015, official data showed. The figure is greater than the 8.4 per cent rent increase in private homes over the same period.

Kong now pays $250 monthly rent for his bed space in the cluttered apartment shared with 10 others. A handwritten note warns of eviction if rental payment is late.

"We are not the Salvation Army," it says.

There are no legal guidelines in Hong Kong restricting how small apartments can be, nor any on rent control.

"The biggest issue in Hong Kong is we don't have any legal restrictions, so the landlords can do whatever they want," said Kong's social worker and community organiser at the Society for Community Organization, Sze Lai Shan.

"Mini flats" or "mosquito flats" are a growing trend as developers target first-time buyers who have given up hope of ever owning a decent-sized home.

Emperor International Holdings will build flats as small as 5.7 sq m, though the measurements exclude kitchen and bathroom; Chun Wo Development Holdings has plans for a residential building catering to young first-time buyers with 11.9 sq m units.

"Hong Kong's real estate has gone so expensive, that's why (developers) are making flats smaller and smaller to make them affordable," said Edina Wong, senior director of residential services at property consultancy Savills.

Hong Kong's richest man Li Ka Shing recently said the trend made him feel "uneasy", even though a residential complex built by his Cheung Kong Property Holdings offers flats smaller than 18.6 sq m. One unit in September sold for HK$2.8 million.

Thomas Lam, senior director at Knight Frank, expects small flats to remain popular in the short run as long as prices remain high and tightening measures such as higher stamp duties stay in place.

But a mini apartment is not for everyone.

Freya Tseng, 27, who advises her family on property investments, has stayed away from mini flats.

"If you buy it for yourself, the quality of life will be too low and you won't be happy living there. If you buy it for investment purposes, it doesn't have any reserve value," Tseng said.

"It's a joke."