By Rina Chandran
HONG KONG - Luk Chin Tak spends much of his life in the tiny, windowless room he shares with his wife in Hong Kong, where the waiting time for public housing has just hit a near two-decade high.
The couple share a sub-divided flat with six others, just some of the more than 200,000 people in Hong Kong who live in apartments partitioned into units barely big enough for a bed, sharing toilets, showers, and a small kitchen space.
"I cannot even open the door fully. There is no air, no light," said Luk, 70, who watches soaps on a small television while his wife works part-time.
"I have waited more than four years for a public housing rental flat, and I am not sure when I will get one," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Faced with some of the world's highest property prices and a wait of more than five years for public housing, Luk and thousands like him are turning to non-profit organisations and social enterprises for help.
The Society for Community Organization (SoCo), a non-profit that has upgraded and let about 100 units at subsidised rates as part of a government plan to have social enterprises and non-profits create more transitional housing.
They offer housing, usually in older and idle units begged from developers and owners, for those waiting for government homes.
"Ours is a limited solution, as it is only temporary housing for two to three years till they get public housing," said Chick Kui Wai, community organiser at SoCo, which has Luk on its waiting list.
"The need is so great, and we can only help a few, and we can't even promise they can live there till they get public housing. But it is still something," said Chick.
It is a desperate move in Hong Kong, ranked the world's least affordable housing market for nine consecutive years by U.S. research firm Demographia.
Ineffective policy measures, powerful developers and a shortage of land have led to a big shortfall in housing, according to property experts, and about 45% of the territory's more than seven million people rely on social housing.
The frustration over housing in one of the world's wealthiest cities is seen in what began as a protest against a bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial and has evolved into demands for greater democracy.
A viral image of graffiti near one protest site reads: "7K for a house like a cell and you really think we out here scared of jail," referring to the HK$7,000 ($893) in monthly rent for a room in a shared apartment.
Hong Kong's Housing Authority was established in 1973 to provide low-cost rental housing and subsidised home ownership. It operates through a system of quotas and points that prioritises families and older couples.
The system is unfair because it assumes young people can get jobs and afford private housing, but many cannot, said Chick.
"Many people even work part-time or in low-paying jobs to qualify for public housing, which forces them to live at a lower standard for years," he said.
The government has announced a plan to develop artificial islands to boost land supply to house about 1.1 million people.
Authorities also negotiate with developers to free up space that non-profits and social enterprises can use as transitional housing. There are about 540 such homes now.
But Ho Chun Kit, who works for a network of non-profits and social enterprises, said authorities had been slow to add transitional housing, believing people would stay.
"But it is important, particularly for single mothers and young low-income families who are not prioritised by the government," said Ho, project director of the Community Housing Movement of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS).
"Having a nicer place to stay in increases their confidence and resilience," he said.
The Community Housing Movement has created 250 transitional units for 300 households, and is also converting an old school into housing.
LightBe, a social enterprise, has renovated 120 older and idle units - including an old textile factory - for about 250 households. Another 100 units are being added.
The government earmarked HK$36 million in this year's budget to create 500 units of modular transitional housing.
A task force will support more than 10 social-enterprise projects with HK$2 billion to fund 5,000-6,000 transitional units, including micro-homes being built inside concrete pipes once used for water, according to the Housing Authority.
But these still fall far short of what is needed, Ho said.
"We are very pessimistic - housing supply cannot be significantly increased, and there will still be a shortfall of 50,000 units in 10 years despite these measures," he said.
The government's focus on transitional housing will not help fix the issue, said Chiu Kam-kuen, chief executive of real estate consultant Cushman & Wakefield in Greater China.
"The government should put more effort into building more rental flats rather than creating more transitional housing to solve the housing problem," he said.
While it is critical to provide support for transitional housing, the government should prioritise developing more public rental housing or subsidised flats, including by re-zoning vacant school premises and industrial buildings, he said.
Jojo Liu, 60, spent years living in inferior housing and now lives in a transitional flat she lives in now while she waits for public housing.
The airy two-bedroom flat in Kowloon she shares with a family of three was renovated by CHM is a big improvement. She volunteers in the building's community centre, which organises activities and provides welfare services to residents.
"I have been waiting for public housing for nearly five years," she said. "I am lucky to have this while I wait."
($1 HKD = $0.127523)