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Hong Kong’s skyrising property prices makes ‘Coffin’ homes increasingly popular

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Twenty square feet with a little space to fit many belongings Wong Ziwa calls this space home. These so-called coffin homes” – an apartment subdivided into many tiny spaces – are common in Hong Kong where property prices are one of the most unaffordable in the world.

61-year-old Wong, who has lived in caged homes similar to “coffin homes” for more than 20 years, pays HK$1,750 ($226) rent every month. He has recently applied for public housing, but worries about his application’s lack of progress.

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“It’s been two years since I applied for public housing, but I still haven’t heard back. How long am I going to wait? I don’t even know, I wish it was quicker. They told me it would take three years, now they’re saying four years. I don’t have hope. I’ve just got to wait,” Wong said.

Only seven percent of the city’s land is zoned for housing and the average price per square foot of city flats is about HK$10,700 ($1,380).

House prices have surged nearly 50 percent to historic highs since 2012, according to government data, and tiny living spaces have become increasingly common, adding to the city’s discontent.

In his policy address on Wednesday (January 18), Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying – whose top priority was to make housing more affordable – said surging home prices posed “the gravest potential hazard” to society.

“To own a home and repay a mortgage, many people set their eyes on making as much money as they can. Money also weighs heavily on young people when they make academic or career choices. The housing problem also poses 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,” he said.

A government report put its target of building 460,000 flats – 280,000 public housing and 180,000 private – over the next decade in the financial hub of more than 7 million.

But non-government organisations say policies need to be put in place in the medium and short term.

“It takes time to build apartments. We’ve seen that the government has tried to implement long-term policies. But they’re lacking in medium and short-term policies. For example, transitional housing, rent subsidies, rent control. We think they’re not doing much in those aspects, and they need to do more. Because even though building housing, the problem is it still takes a long time. So we are in a way disappointed,” social worker and community organiser at the Society for Community Organization (SoCO), Sze Lai Shan said.

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

Nearly 200,000 Hong Kong residents are calling a wire cage or these tiny spaces their home, according to government data, but SoCo believes the real number is higher.

“People live in a very narrow space with polluted air and the facilities are simple. They cannot have enough room to stretch their bodies and may have many psychological and social problems as well,” she said.

Hong Kong’s median rents surged 10.5 percent to HK$4,200 ($540) in 2015, official data showed. The figure is greater than the 8.4 percent rent increase in private homes over the same period.

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