Hong Kong must remove barriers to affordable, adequate housing
(Co-authoured with Jo Hayes, CEO of the Habitat for Humanity Hong Kong)
“Leave No One Behind” is the North Star guiding the United Nations’ drive for progress across a series of sustainable development goals aimed at achieving peace and prosperity for all people. Seven years have passed since 2015, when 193 countries committed to eradicating extreme poverty and inequality.
However, global stressors, such as the coronavirus pandemic and the accelerating effects of climate change, have exacerbated existing economic and social disparities in cities everywhere and further prevented vulnerable and excluded individuals, households and communities from accessing adequate housing.
October 3 is World Habitat Day and this year’s theme is “Mind the Gap. Leave No One and No Place Behind”. Around the world, people are acknowledging the state of inequality in cities and widening social and economic gaps – themes that resonate here in Hong Kong, which is regularly ranked as the world’s least affordable housing market. The income disparity between rich and poor in Hong Kong has only been rising. Given today’s economic reality, affordable and adequate housing is still out of reach for many.
World Habitat Day is an opportune occasion to be reminded that housing woes hurt some vulnerable communities more than others. One should be particularly mindful of the barriers, both physical and otherwise, that some segments of the population face in this regard.
People with disabilities often have difficulties navigating their built environment and may require adaptations and assistance to get around. It is with this in mind that the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has been active in advocating for universal design principles to facilitate independent access for all people, particularly those with disabilities.
Universal design can be described as designing for use by everyone, to the greatest extent possible, rather than designing for the average user. Using universal design principles reduces the need for assistive technology and makes products more usable by all people, not just those with disabilities but also senior citizens, carers of young children and pregnant women.
This issue has gained urgency given the city’s rapidly ageing population. It is a requirement that town planners, developers and architects can no longer ignore.
Another vulnerable group facing barriers to getting decent housing is ethnic minorities, especially the disadvantaged among them. It is not uncommon to hear of landlords refusing to rent or asking for higher rent and of property agents unwilling to provide services on account of the prospective tenant’s race. Often, these groups have to settle for poorer options due to limited choice and desperation.
Language can also be a barrier to accessing the housing system. When tenancy agreements are provided solely in traditional Chinese, members of ethnic minority communities may feel forced into signing a legal document without a clear understanding of the terms. This may constitute indirect race discrimination.
The anti-discrimination ordinances clearly prohibit this kind of behaviour. But law is only part of the solution. For lasting change, we need to uproot deep-seated stereotypes and biases that lead to discriminatory attitudes.
At the EOC, we have embarked on a publicity campaign targeting landlords, tenants and property agents since last year with the aim of ending the problem through shared responsibility.
At Habitat for Humanity Hong Kong, we advocate for policies that safeguard equal access to adequate and affordable housing for members of traditionally marginalised groups and organise awareness-raising events to explore how to effect change in the housing system.
At a recent Habitat Housing Series event, one speaker reiterated a key message: we need to go beyond viewing housing as a commodity and make explicit a commitment to housing as a fundamental right. As the government works to bring more public housing speedily into being, we urge a long-term vision with rights-based approaches that strengthen equal access to affordable and adequate housing for low-income households and members of traditionally marginalised groups.
According to a 2022 UN report, discrimination in housing is one of the most pervasive and persistent barriers to the fulfilment of the right to adequate housing globally. With a more equitable and fair housing system, Hong Kong can showcase its global leadership in striving to leave no one behind, and create an environment where all residents are empowered to contribute to the city’s role as a global hub over the long term.
The article was published in SCMP on 4 October 2022.