Tiny flats ‘a necessary evil’ for some, the first step on the ladder for others

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Good enough for Bruce Willis (in The Fifth Element), good enough for Hong Kong? Tiny flats in the future.

Flats in Hong Kong are only getting smaller.

This month the developer of AVA 228, a private residential block in Cheung Sha Wan, introduced a 129-square-foot flat, equivalent to that of a private car parking space.

This comes after the launch of a 128-square-foot flat at T Plus, another private estate in Tuen Mun featuring homes less than 200 square feet. The unit is known as the smallest first-hand flat on the market.

“Even an emperor could find comfort in just a small bed,” said Mr Anthony Poon, director of T Plus’ developer Chun Wo, trying to justify the flat’s tiny size. (Ed Note: Maybe a very tiny emperor).

While his remark has been widely mocked and criticized over the last year, a regulation to set minimum home sizes is nowhere to be seen in Hong Kong.

Dubbed ‘nano-flats’, these homes come with saleable areas of up to 200 square feet, comparable to a university dorm residence, to target single homebuyers and young couples. These small flats are quickly becoming the norm in Hong Kong, with not only new units coming into the market but also units subdivided from larger original flats.

More people are living in these small units.

The Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee said 115,000 people were residing in “inadequate housing” in 2017, up 9 percent. The median per capita floor area of accommodation these people is is 56.5 square feet, compared to 161 square feet across Hong Kong.

Minimum size?

This draws into question whether the Hong Kong government should (or can) impose a minimum limit on home sizes.

“It is not infeasible to impose flat size limits,” says Dr Chung Kim-wah, assistant professor of the Department of Applied Social Sciences at PolyU. “But there would be a price to pay, as the housing supply would drop.”

At the moment there is no sign of such policy. Dr Chung explains the resistance comes from the government and the developers.

“Officials are trying very hard to meet the housing supply target, which they are already barely meeting; Developers can maximize profits, as it’s easier to sell these small flats and they are more expensive than large flats per square foot,” he says.

Meanwhile, Dr Edward Yiu Chung-yim, a geography scholar and former lawmaker, points out that the problem lies on the weak enforcement of the Buildings Ordinance rather than the failure to set a limit on home size.

“Imposing flat size limit would be meaningless if the enforcement of the Ordinance continues to be weak,” he says.

While not defining subdivided flats, the Buildings Ordinance requires that buildings that house these flats meet safety and hygienic standards. While many fail to do so, enforcement is weak.

“If the authorities do not step up enforcement, the enactment of a minimum apartment size would not seriously affect housing supply or prices as flats would still be subdivided into sizes that the market demands,” Dr Yiu says.

The necessary evil?

Small flats are indeed in hot demand and Mr Eric Ma, Secretary of the Development Bureau acknowledged that back in 2017.

“I think small flats are mainly a special need arising from the demand. Buyers would like to have less burden on their finances,” he told the media, implying that the government did not have any intention to take action.

Local think tank Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre argued that nano-flats are perhaps a “necessary evil” given Hong Kong’s demographic changes.

“One-person and two-person households will take up nearly half of the housing demand by 2024… The average domestic household size went down from 3.9 in 1982 to 2.8 in 2016,” the think tank said.

But Prof Chung argues that, in this case, the egg might come before the chicken and demand may exist simply because the flats are built and buyers have few other options. What’s more, the consequences could be worse.

“Residents are left with limited choices when living in small flats. Their social life is limited. Couples have to live separately after getting married and they are discouraged from having children,” he says.

In the long run, this could damage the socioeconomic fabric of the city.

“Our living standards should not go backward when our economy is advancing. It is unreasonable,” says Prof Chung.

He suggests standard sizes for kitchens and bathrooms at least for home safety reasons and for new measures to be implemented to stop developers from changing floor plans after the originals have been approved.

Global examples

Some countries have already taken steps to counter the trend of smaller flats sprouting up but the Hong Kong government is still standing by its free market economy approach to housing.

Singapore, which Hong Kong is often compared to, has introduced new rules to require the maximum number of units per development to be calculated by a proposed building’s gross floor area divided by 85 square meters, rather than 70 square meters under the previous rules.

On the other hand, Taiwan has set the basic living standards for one-person households, requiring flats to be at least 140 square feet. The U.K. also requires one person flats to be a minimum of 37 square meters (398 square feet).

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