Society & Politics

N-nothings: Just better than nothing

Another round of housing subsidy giveaway is still far from perking up the inadequately housed

Tucked away among an array of fluorescent-lit garages and hardware stores, a narrow steel door left ajar opens to a gloomy, draughty stairwell of a dilapidated tenement building in Kowloon City District.

Inside, a plethora of interwoven power cables writhes across the ceiling and down the complex's tightly-confined walls, with a curved flight of stairs leading to a run-down 100-square-foot apartment occupied by a three-person family.

The cubicle interior lies strewn with jumbled piles of clothing, toys and bags of all sizes, above which heaps of eating and cooking utensils sit haphazardly on plate racks.

This is where Ms Wong Tsai-hung, 44, and her husband and five-year-old son start and end their every day. Falling outside the social safety net, the low-income family has resigned themselves to living in a decrepit tenement cubicle.

And they are not alone. Known as the N-nothings class, they are not covered by the $80 billion relief package, introduced in the latest budget, which targeted Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) recipients, taxpayers and public housing tenants.

"It's been four years since I applied for public housing in the urban areas," said Ms Wong. "But all I've been told to do is wait unless I'm willing to move to units in newly developed areas."

Their waiting time for public housing is longer than three years – the period within which the government has promised to assign a flat to general applicants. But she said she could not accept the flats allocated to her as moving away would make it difficult for her husband to continue to work as a bus driver in the district.

Then, there came a move to lift many agonising spirits, including Ms Wong, in early October, when the Community Care Fund, a trust fund co-financed by the government and the business sector, launched a new $91-million housing subsidy scheme aimed at the N-nothing group.

The Fund, which operates under the trusteeship of the Secretary of Home Affairs, offers a one-off payment of up to $8,000 to people who are renting cubicles, cocklofts or bed spaces in private buildings.

From one-, two- to three-person households, there is a limit of monthly household income ($17,060, $13,410 and $17,060) and monthly rent ($4,370, $6,705, and $8,530). The grants will be equivalent to about two months' rent.

Having some extra cash on top of meagre salaries may come as a rent relief for some, but Ms Wong said the high rent – around $4,000 a month – was too heavy a burden for them anyway.

She thinks more public housing should be built as being housed in a public flat is what will really alleviate her difficulties and improve her living environment.

The scheme has also drawn criticism from district councillors and aid groups, who doubt its effectiveness in addressing housing and poverty problems amid the city's skyrocketing property prices and rising unemployment rate.

Although there is not yet an official poverty line set by the Hong Kong government, the Oxfam adopts the definition of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that households living under a monthly income less than or equal to half of the median income of all other households of equal size.

There are currently more than 451,000 households (1,177,000 people) who fall into this category.

With reference to the Census and Statistics Department's general household survey from 2003 to the second-quarter of 2012, Oxfam also found that there are 194,000 working poor households in the city, and over 90 per cent of them are non-CSSA recipients.

That is, there are more than 170,000 working poor households that are concurrently non-CSSA recipients. But according to the Fund, only around 30,000 low-income people are to benefit.

Mr Peace Wong, social security and employment policy officer of Hong Kong Council of Social Service, pointed out that the eligibility criteria for the subsidy were too strict and could limit its coverage significantly.

For instance, Nam Cheong West district councillor Mr Wai Woon-nam questioned why tenants of non-subdivided flats – who may be low-income individuals or households that do not own any properties or benefit from any utility subsidies – were not covered by the new subsidy scheme.

"Some low-income families living in squalid, cramped tenement units in Cha Kwo Ling have been disqualified from the scheme for having individual bathrooms and a main entrance door," said Mr Tse Suk-chun, the district councillor of Chui Cheung.

While the effectiveness of our city's new housing subsidy scheme is shrouded in doubt, our sister city Macau is set to witness an increase in the rental subsidy for low-income families on waiting lists for social housing.

Marking a stark contrast between the two schmes, there are no rental limits imposed on Macau applicants, who enjoy greater ease of application as households in the queue for public housing will automatically be granted the new subsidies.

More remarkably, eligible applicants are offered with monthly, instead of one-off, payments of up to $21,786, which is adjusted according to the inflation rate and property prices.

As affordability of housing has long been a nagging issue in Hong Kong and something elusive to many of the city's low-income families, Mr Peace Wong has called for the restoration of rent control, which was abolished in 1998.

"It's worth discussing a rent control policy that could benefit the city's underprivileged without further reducing the number of available housing units," he said, adding that many countries in the West had rent regulation in place.

In New York's Manhattan borough, for example, nearly 50 per cent of rented residences are rent-regulated, where landlords are only permitted to raise the rent by a few percentage points.

 

Reported by Brian Yap  

Edited by Ada Yeung

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