Thursday, July 28, 2011

Coffin Homes: Living in 15 Square Feet

This week CNN covered a story on something of which I was unaware: Coffin Homes.  “Hidden amid the multi-million dollar high-rise apartments and chic shopping malls of Hong Kong's urban centers are scores of tiny, unseen tenements -- some no bigger than coffins -- that many people call home… Nicknamed coffin homes for their physical similarities, the 15-square-foot enclosure is just one incarnation of the city's distinctive low-income housing alternatives. Others include the city's cage homes, which resemble livestock coops (Hong Kong’s Poorest Living in Coffin Homes, CNN).”  I challenge you to read this article and watch this video, which includes a walkthrough of a coffin home.  

As a developed country and classified as an advanced economy, Hong Kong is home to some of the wealthiest people in the world.  Despite these advances, a proportion of Hong Kong’s population are living in substandard housing; many who are productive citizens living off a substandard wage system.  

Owned by private landlords, the government in Hong Kong takes a “hands off” approach, as tax payer’s money should not be used for commercial endeavors.  While I see the government’s justification, part of me wonders whether renting conditions should be regulated.  On top of the outrageous cost for some of these units (range of $150-$1,400 a month per unit), the conditions are unsafe, as was shown with a recent Hong Kong fire that killed several coffin home dwellers.  Fire safety code violations are understandably common with these units.  Without limits and rules, it appears that people will do anything to make a buck.  While many in democratic countries consider government regulation evil, how can we justify allowing people to impose evil on the displaced? 

For now, most Americans reading this will think, “Wow, glad I don’t live in Hong Kong.”  But could this happen to us?  According to CNN, the existence of these living situations are caused by the “perfect (urban) storm: a combination of skyrocketing real-estate prices and arguably the biggest wealth gap in Asia” (CNN).   Considering the current economic conditions, real estate prices are skyrocketing, especially as the cost of living increases.  In the New York Times, an article was published talking about the newest census data in regards to wealth.  The conclusion: wealth disparities are continuing to grow.  In fact, “The declines have led to the largest wealth disparities in the 25 years that the [census] bureau has been collecting the data, according to the report (Recession Study Finds Hispanics Hit the Hardest, New York Times)”.  So real estate is skyrocketing and wealth disparities are rising.  Does this sound at all like the “perfect urban storm” to you? 

Some things to think about:

  • Hong Kong landlords consider providing coffin homes noble, as this provides an alternative to homelessness.  What do you think of their justification? 
  • How should this be handled in the United States, if landlords start renting out coffin homes here?
  • Should there be government standards on rented housing? 

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