"This is no place for humans," said Yang Lianchun, scanning the 150-square-foot subdivided unit she shares with her husband and two young children in the Sham Shui Po district in Kowloon. A stove, desk, refrigerator and bunk bed take up most of the space. One tiny window provides ventilation.
Ms. Yang moved to Hong Kong several years ago from mainland China. Her family pays about 4,000 Hong Kong dollars, or about US$500, a month in rent, the bulk of their income.
She said the difficulty of finding adequate housing turned her into an activist. She recently represented a grass-roots campaign for affordable housing in a meeting with senior government officials.
With demand for housing so hot, landlords are scrambling to take advantage. Subdivided apartments aren’t illegal in Hong Kong, but they are subject to structural and fire-safety regulations. Yet some landlords have turned fire escape routes into parts of their rental space, surveyors say, threatening tenants’ safety.
When last month’s fire ripped through the building, some tenants couldn’t find a way out and survivors complained of locked emergency exits.
Another fire on Monday at the Chungking Mansions, a complex of shops, hostels and partitioned flats in Kowloon’s key shopping district, resulted in no deaths.
The best way to make housing more affordable, say some analysts, is to increase the land supply designated for housing. Less than 7% of Hong Kong’s land is designated for residential use, according to official data. Woodlands, grasslands and wetlands constitute 67% of the city’s 1,108 square kilometers.
"Hong Kong isn’t short of land," said Chau Kwong-wing, chair professor of real estate and construction at the University of Hong Kong. "Our land-use design has failed to catch up with the changes in society."
The government has restricted land use to keep prices high so that it can collect more revenue when it sells tracts, said Alice Poon, a former executive at a Hong Kong real estate developer and author of “Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong.” The government’s “over-reliance on land-sale revenue for its fiscal health is the root problem of its land and housing policies,” she said.