by Jennifer Vincent
200 thousand squatters, known as Hong Kong’s “floating poor,” reside atop forty thousand skyscrapers in filthy, cramped, shacks (many times 2 or 3 stories high). They pay on average $1,000 HK dollars or about $100 US for these dwellings a month. There is little to no privacy or security. The thin walls have holes and the roofs are hardly strong enough to keep out the elements. Many of the residents are elderly and cannot fight back when they are robbed, a common occurrence. They have no other options.
Hong Kong has the second most expensive land in the world and according to the UN’s Gini Index the gap between the rich and the poor is the fifth widest. With no minimum wage, non-existent unemployment benefits, no pensions for the elderly, wide spread employment discrimination, and a general lack of social systems, it is no surprise that HK residents face many hardships – including in the housing sector. Although housing is guaranteed in the former British colony, the waiting list is very long and thus hardly guaranteed. It is much more profitable for those in power to privatize housing than to support public housing, so it is no surprise that the government and the media backs privatization, despite its consequences for the public at large and illegality of turning public land over to private hands.
Housing in Hong Kong is split between the private and public sectors. According to representatives from the Grassroots Development Centre, a training and resource center for HK activists, the private sector is made up of urban slums and these rooftop dwellings. It also has luxury and middle class housing for those who can afford it. The public sector is under the Housing Authority. The government is making moves to privatize all of HK’s housing, by creating its own excuse. The Housing Authority is split between three different areas: rental housing, non-domestic properties, and the home-ownership scheme (aka: build/sell scheme). The government bankrupts themselves on the build and sell scheme and rentals for shops and parking. They use these bankruptcies as an excuse to stop the home-ownership scheme and start to sell the small rental shops and parking to big developers, namely the Link Real Estate Investment Trust (Reit). By bankrupting themselves the government creates an excuse to sell off the property to private investors whose shareholders become powerful with huge bargaining power.
As well as bankrupting the buy/sell option and market rentals in order to then sell to private investors, once legal rooftop dwellings in the private sector become illegal and residents are relocated to “temporary” housing where there are no public facilities, no schools, and no businesses. At first the squatters are compensated minimally at a small fraction of what they should be compensated at. Even this is only for a short time. On an arbitrary day the remaining squatters are not compensated at all. However, they will still have to pay for the demolition. The tenants’ new “temporary” shacks are made of fiber wood and are located down dirt roads. The displaced squatters cannot afford public transportation and thus have no way to make a living.
The shantytown situation is not an improvement from the thin roofed and walled dwellings atop the skyscrapers, but they pose less threat to profits in the shantytowns. They no longer are on top of valuable real estate. Construction is everywhere in HK as you can see new developments replacing former community stores and dwellings, surrounding the remaining community markets and floating poor.
These pushes have not met without resistance from the public. Politicians disappear when issues arise. Government officials are either not elected by the public or, if they are, elections are only held every seven years, leaving no real accountability at all. However, this does not stop the people from taking action. The government’s attempt to privatize all of HK’s housing has caused major mass protests and lawsuits against the government. Lo Siu-Lang, an elderly activist, in particular has pressed legal action against the government. She sued the Housing Authority for privatization of housing by its selling assets to Link Reit. Siu-Lang appealed the rubber-stamp of the Legislative Council so the government sought to expedite the normal appeal time from 28 days to a mere half-day. Fortunately, the courts found this unlawful and denied the government’s request.
“Three things are universal [in Hong Kong]; healthcare, housing, and education. If any of these were taken away their would be mass riots,” one Hong Kong youth stated. We can already see that this is true with the reactions to the privatization of housing thus far with people protesting the privatization. The more the government pushes, the more people push back. Although restricted and against many odds, activists in Hong Kong continue to persevere. The Grassroots Development Centre and the fight against unfair housing situations is just one example of the potential in Hong Kong activists. The GDC strives to provide a “platform for organizing”; space for activists to meet and organize, to plan, to recruit, to discuss, to support one another, and to strive together for a better world. And as they will gladly tell you, “we really believe organizing is power.”