Hong Kong’s housing crisis discussion must home in on the struggles of ethnic minority residents
The recent impetus given to tackling housing issues and the flurry of outreach efforts by senior officials to those from grass-root communities, particularly people living in subdivided units, is timely. October 4 was World Habitat Day, when we were invited to reflect on the state of our towns and cities, and the basic right of all to adequate shelter.
Housing is at the top of every Hongkonger’s list of key livelihood issues, as is clear from the extensive focus it rightly received in the chief executive’s policy address this year. However, I wish to draw attention to the further disadvantages that some groups of Hong Kong residents face on top of the systemic problems we are all too familiar with.
Attitudinal barriers towards some communities, particularly racial minorities and mainland Chinese, add to the more visible socio-economic barriers to finding housing. And yet, these difficulties rarely find mention in the discussion of housing issues.
Members of Hong Kong’s racial minorities, especially those from lower-income groups, have reflected to the Equal Opportunities Commission time and again the difficulties they face in renting flats. Landlords refusing outright to rent to people of certain races and property agents declining to provide them with services are common experiences for them.
Many from the ethnic minority communities end up with lower-quality housing because of the fewer choices available to them and the limited bargaining power they have.
Yes, there are provisions in place that make it unlawful for landlords and property agents to discriminate on the grounds of race. The Race Discrimination Ordinance protects people from discrimination in the area of tenancy. However, most ethnic minority community members do not consider coming forward to lodge a complaint with the Equal Opportunities Commission despite feedback from the community about discriminatory acts in this area.
Various factors are responsible for this. Invariably, those who find themselves facing discrimination are also the most voiceless and disempowered. They also do not want to be seen as “troublemakers” in the community, according to a 2016 Equal Opportunities Commission study.
Home is a reflection of one’s identity. It is a sanctuary. Where and how you live also affects your sense of dignity and well-being. Many countries have a minimum living standard stipulation, which includes criteria such as safety, living area and number of residents.
The prevalence of subdivided units is a blight on Hong Kong’s housing landscape and the city’s standing as an affluent and thriving business centre. Subdivided flats provide housing for more than 200,000 people according to the last census.
More importantly, about 10 per cent of non-Chinese Hongkongers were living in subdivided units when they make up less than 4 per cent of the population. South Asians made up half of the non-Chinese living in subdivided units, while non-domestic-worker Filipinos made up 16 per cent. Worryingly, almost one-third of the Nepalese in Hong Kong were living in subdivided units.
Deep-seated biases and prejudices that exist about certain racial groups make housing a bigger and more difficult issue for people from these communities. Biases can only be dispelled through education, exposure and interaction. The ghettoisation of communities is an unwelcome trend and one that we must be vigilant about and do our utmost to avoid.
For this, it is important that everyone has equal access to the opportunity to choose the housing best suited to their needs regardless of where they come from, and that people not be forced into certain neighbourhoods or housing types due to a lack of choice. Racial and cultural biases should not be allowed to get in the way of basic human rights.
The United Nations Human Settlements Programme states: “Failing to recognise, protect, and fulfil the right to adequate housing results in the violation of a plethora of fundamental rights including the right to work, education, health, and security.” After all, housing is much more than four walls and a roof above our heads.
Ricky CHU Man-kin
Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission
(Note: The article was published on South China Morning Post on 13 October 2021.)