7th December 2023 – (Hong Kong) As one of the world’s wealthiest cities, Hong Kong’s extreme income inequality and housing unaffordability present a jarring paradox. While tycoons reside in lavish mansions, nearly one-quarter of Hong Kongers languish below the poverty line in subdivided flats barely larger than a coffin. This stark dichotomy demands urgent action to build an inclusive society where prosperity is shared.

The data reveals a deeply polarised recovery amid Hong Kong’s emergence from the pandemic. In early 2023, the poorest families earned a staggering 57 times less than the richest households, up from 34 times pre-pandemic. From 2019 to early 2023, the median monthly income of the bottom 10 per cent plunged 34 per cent to just HK$2,300, while the top 10 per cent enjoyed a 10 per cent increase to HK$132,600.

Overall, 20 per cent of Hong Kong’s population – over 1.36 million people – now live in poverty. The economically active poor struggle with working poverty, disproportionately clustered in low-paying sectors like retail and food services. Unemployment also remains precarious, with over 40 per cent of the jobless living in poverty.

Among the economically inactive, elderly poverty is severe, with near 40 per cent of those over 65 impoverished. Inadequate childcare hampers women’s workforce participation, while single mothers confront immense challenges. Hong Kong’s surging elderly dependence ratio compounds the urgency of alleviating poverty.

At its roots, poverty stems from the failure to ensure adequate access to fundamentals like housing. Over 220,000 Hong Kongers occupy subdivided units as small as 4’x4′, paying exorbitant rents for squalid conditions. Denied space to study, play, or find respite from the heat, the young in these households face constrained futures.

Likewise, crippling unaffordability locks out home ownership or decent rentals for most. Rocket-high prices coupled with insufficient public housing have created a powder keg. To defuse it, the government must act decisively.

First, it must reform outdated policies like the Small House Policy, which constrains land supply for public housing. Freezing public housing queues at 6 years provides short-term relief, but the ultimate solution is boosting supply substantially. With imaginative urban planning, Hong Kong can achieve a quality, sustainable living environment for all.

Second, under-utilised sites, vacant buildings and transitional housing offer immediate options to house the vulnerable. These interim measures bring respite while more permanent public housing is built. To be effective, transitional housing tenancies should be extended to 10 years.

Third, the government must improve subdivided units through regulations, financial incentives and public-private partnerships. Minimum size and safety standards, rent controls and enhanced social services are critical. Non-profits and corporations can sponsor upgrading initiatives.

Fourth, increasing childcare support enables greater workforce participation among women struggling with poverty. Prioritizing more subsidized care facilities in high-need districts encourages self-reliance through employment.

Fifth, the minimum wage should rise annually to lift grassroots families beyond poverty and attract those out of the workforce. Pegging increments to median social welfare payments ensure a living wage.

Finally, promoting social innovation and cross-sector partnerships can accelerate impact. The government, businesses and non-profits should collaborate on pilot projects that alleviate poverty in a financially sustainable manner.

The despair that cramped and unhygienic living conditions breed is reflected in the rising youth suicide rate. With 31 suspected student suicides reported this year, the figures have hit a 10-year high. Studies reveal that substandard housing multiplies the stresses of study, especially during lockdowns. Students in impoverished households lack proper space to focus on virtual lessons or homework. The inability to escape noisy, crowded flats exacerbates mental health issues. Without room for recreation, it is unsurprising that many students see no hope. Tragically, some turn to suicide, believing death the only exit from their circumstances. Providing quality, affordable housing is an essential first step in addressing the deep-seated issues driving students to this fate. No child should have their potential and dreams constrained by their housing situation.

With Hong Kong at a crossroads, it must choose inclusive growth that creates an equitable housing system and provides opportunities for all. Each person deserves a secure home from which to build a decent life. By recognising housing’s foundational role in poverty alleviation and social mobility, Hong Kong can live up to its ideals as Asia’s World City.

The consequences of inaction are untenable – worsening inequality, reduced social cohesion and a generation deprived of dignified living. To forge an inclusive society and progressive future, the government must tackle the housing crisis with the boldness this existential challenge demands. A fair Hong Kong that leaves no one behind remains within reach if political courage can match the will of its people.