Any Hong Kong housing solution must also serve ethnic minorities
As Hong Kong continues to make housing a priority, with the shortage of affordable and appropriate housing repeatedly coming up as one of the biggest social issues the city faces, we should bear in mind that housing is more than just four walls and a roof above.
While the lack of affordable housing is a citywide issue, some pockets of the population may face further difficulties. Though measures are in place to help low-income groups in general, disadvantaged ethnic minority communities are not necessarily a focus. World Habitat Day falls on October 2, and now is a good time to try and gain a deeper understanding of this demographic and the obstacles they face.
Hong Kong is known for having a small per capita living space. Its population density is among the highest in the world. According to the 2021 population census, about 8 per cent of households in Hong Kong have a living space of less than 20 square metres (215 sq ft). Among non-ethnic Chinese households, the percentage of those with living spaces below this size is as high as 16 per cent.
There is also a greater impact on ethnic minorities when it comes to substandard housing. While 3 per cent of Hong Kong’s overall population lived in subdivided units in 2021, for South Asians, the figure was nearly 14 per cent.
Among South Asians, certain communities fare worse than others – for example, nearly 28 per cent of Nepalese in Hong Kong lived in subdivided units while the number of Pakistanis living in these quarters grew by 47 per cent from 2016 to 2021.
At the Equal Opportunities Commission, we also receive reports of landlords rejecting ethnic minority tenants, or charging them more, or giving them poorer choices. It is important to remember that, under the Race Discrimination Ordinance, it is illegal to refuse to rent properties or provide inferior rental services based on the race of prospective tenants.
But laws, however effective, can only do so much. Combating racial bias and promoting cultural understanding and respect require sustained education and building awareness.
The concept of liveability, though distinct from housing per se, is an important factor to bear in mind when looking at habitat as a whole. As stated in the Habitat Agenda endorsed in the 1996 UN Conference on Human Settlements, liveability “refers to those spatial, social and environmental characteristics and qualities that uniquely contribute to people’s sense of personal and collective well-being and to their sense of satisfaction in being the residents of that particular settlement”.
Allocating spaces for religious activities and cultural events, ensuring public facilities can be accessed by all, and providing language and job training programmes tailored to the needs of ethnic minorities are some measures for district authorities to consider.
It is heartening to see that the Hong Kong 2030 report, which came out in 2021, echoes this sentiment by stating as one of its goals: “It is important to ensure what we plan for could be equally enjoyed by all members of the community, irrespective of income, religion, race or abilities.”
Besides facilities, services and policies catering to different racial groups, liveability would also be enhanced through community integration. With different ethnicities and cultures sharing a common space, it is essential this is done harmoniously, is mutually rewarding and enhances the well-being of all those inhabiting that space.
With higher numbers of ethnic minorities spread across the city, it is important to create an inclusive environment where individuals from different backgrounds can interact and thrive together. Platforms to come together as neighbours and community members will create a sense of community and shared purpose.
Including liveability and community considerations in our housing policy would allow us to look at the issue more holistically. Addressing racial bias, language and cultural barriers, while at the same time building rich and diverse communities, should be seen as essential factors in the housing issue.
Stakeholders including government departments, community leaders, as well as landlord organisations and neighbourhood networks, must work together to achieve this.
The United Nations’ special rapporteur on housing is right to point out that the right to adequate housing is “more than having a roof over one’s head, it is the right to live in safety and dignity in a decent home”. And this holds true for everyone, regardless of race, colour, age, ability or gender.
The article was published in SCMP on 4 October 2023.