The Vertical City, Part II: Why Half of Hong Kong Lives in Public Housing (2023)

What do Richard Nixon, Queen Elizabeth, Margaret Thatcher and Prince Axel of Denmark all have in common? They all spent time in Hong Kong’s public housing estates. For decades, no dignitary passed through Hong Kong without first inspecting the places where most Hongkongers live. When he visited the newly built Wah Kwai Estate in 1994, Prince Charles carefully examined the site’s blueprints. Richard Nixon played a vigorous game of ping pong with the residents of Choi Hung Estate in 1964. Her Majesty the Queen smiled politely as she made her way down the outdoor corridors of Oi Man Estate in 1975.

Choi HungEstate.

It’s a testament to how much public housing underpins modern Hong Kong society. More than 3.2 million people live in one of Hong Kong’s 235 public housing estates. That’snearly half the population. Some estates offer cheap rent, while others contain subsidised flats sold to families that couldn’t otherwise afford to become homeowners. With few exceptions, these housing estates consist of high-rise apartment blocks, many of them 40 storeys or taller. More than anything else, it was the development of public housing that planted the seed for Hong Kong to become the world’s most vertical city.

The story of how the government of Hong Kong became the city’s biggest landlord usually starts with the Shek Kip Mei fire of 1953, when flames ripped through a shantytown on Christmas Eve, leaving more than 50,000 people hopeless. That led to the construction of temporary resettlement housing that eventually became the public housing programme that exists today.

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But public housing was actually the product of another traumatic event: World War II. The war’s devastation, combined with renewed fighting between Communists and Nationalists, drove hundreds of thousands of people from China to British-controlled Hong Kong. As tenements swelled with newcomers and shantytowns creeped up the hillsides, the Lord Mayor of London donated £14,00o (worth £494,000 or HK$4.8 million today) to help alleviate the situation. That was used as seed money for the Hong Kong Housing Society, which built the city’s first public housing complex, Sheung Lei Uk Estate, in Sham Shui Po in 1952. Around the same time, another independently-financed public housing project, the Model Housing Estate, was completed in North Point.

The first resettlement estate for victims of the Shek Kip Mei fire opened in 1954, with 29 blocks of housing, each shaped like an H and structured around two concrete courtyards. Living conditions were rudimentary. Families slept in 100-square-foot rooms; cooking and cleaning was done on the open-air corridors that wrapped around each floor. Schoolchildren attended class on the roof while their mothers played mahjong downstairs. Enterprising ground-floor tenants converted their housing units into shops and restaurants.

Shek Kip Mei 22 – Photo Courtesy of Christopher DeWolf

Today, just one of these early blocks survives: Mei Ho House, which is now a museum, youth hostel and café. Iris Tsang, CEO of the Hong Kong Youth Hostel Association, collected oral histories from former residents while the building was being adapted for reuse. “Neighbours were very close with one another,” she says. “They didn’t lock their doors. They helped take care of each other’s kids. When I did the interviews, the residents could always recall a lot of stories – not always happy, they did sometimes argue with each other, but it’s always a warm feeling.”

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It took years to develop that tight-knit sense of community, however. In the late 1950s, many resettlement estates were squalid, dangerous places. “The housing blocks were like matchboxes – they were built fast and they were shabby,” says Ah Ying, a retired garment worker who moved into the Tai Hang Tung Resettlement Estate as a child. Her family had been living in a squatter village in Lo Fu Ngam —now known as Lok Fu —when fire swept through the village in 1954. Their home and all of their possessions consumed by flames, her family moved into a tent on To Kwa Wan Road.

Three years later, Ah Ying and her family were assigned one and a half rooms inside the Tai Hang Tung Resettlement Estate. They had one room to themselves and another they shared with a single man, a wood partition between them. While this was a step up from living in the street, it was hardly comfortable. The family’s room was draughtyand cold because it faced north. Things kept disappearing; they suspected the man who shared their room was stealing from them. And the bathrooms were atrocious. “There was only one toilet room and one shower room on each floor, so we always had to wait in long queues to use them,” says Ah Ying. There were no doors or curtains, and men often peeped on women who were using the toilet. The toilets were so filthy, people did their business in the showers instead. Nobody bothered to clean it up. At night, heroin addicts used the shower rooms as shooting galleries.

North Point Estate, completed in 1957, demolished in 2002.

Not all housing estates were as bad. In 1957, the government completed the North Point Estate, which consisted of seven 11-storey blocks containing 1,956 flats. Compared to the resettlement estates, which were temporary, the North Point Estate was meant to be a proper home. Each building was served by a lift and every apartment had its own bathroom, kitchen and balcony. Somewhat ironically, the North Point Estate was cleared for redevelopment in 2003, while the last of Hong Kong’s resettlement estates remained until 2007, when the original blocks of Shek Kip Mei Estate were torn down and replaced by modern towers.

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Public housing has changed dramatically over the years. First it grew taller, with rectangular high-rise slabs like those in Wah Fu Estate or Choi Hung Estate, both landmark developments from the 1960s. Then came innovations like cruciform- and trident-shaped towers, which were designed to boost capacity while still providing each housing unit with fresh air and natural light. Each block was based on a template: the same basic design replicated over and over again. All told, there are 15 styles of housing blocks in use, from the cruciform Concord to the conjoined Twin Tower.

Photo – Courtesy of Instagrammer Nukeproofsuit

Because each building is similar, the Housing Authority—which has run most of Hong Kong’s public housing estates since 1973 —is able to prefabricate parts of the building and install them quickly and cheaply. Stairwells, kitchens and entire façades are precast, shipped to the construction site and popped together –not exactly like a Lego set, but close.

The buildings aren’t the only things that have changed over the years. Like Hong Kong as a whole, public housing estates were once home to family-run shops, dai pai dongs and other independent businesses. Most estates have wet markets, and many estates built in the 1970s and 80s include dining pavilions known as mushroom huts (dung1 gu1 ting4 冬菇亭) because of the distinctive shape of their roofs. Like dai pai dongs, mushroom huts are a reliably satisfying destination for an affordable lunch or greasy late-night feasts.

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Public Housing – Trident style
Public housing – Cruciform style

In recent years, however, many of those small businesses have been replaced by chains. In 2004, the government privatised the commercial space in nearly 151 estates by selling them to Link REIT for HK$22 billion. In the Cheung Fat Estate wet market on Tsing Yi, rents doubled after Link took over, prompting merchants to strike in 2010 and 2016. Earlier this year, in Leung King Estate in Tuen Mun, a subcontractor hired by Link to manage the estate’s commercial areas was accused of sending thugs to beat up illegal hawkers who were selling street food.

In fairness, Link has made an effort to renovate dilapidated wet markets and mushroom huts, and housing estates like Tai Yuen and Siu Sai Wan now have some of the most pleasant markets in Hong Kong. Still, the trend towards higher rents and chain stores seems entrenched. Many of Hong Kong’s newest housing estates, like those built on the site of the former Kai Tak Airport, have commercial spaces dominated by corporate businesses.

One way in which housing estates have definitely improved is in the quality of their public space. Urban greening expert Jim Chi-yung, known locally as the Tree Professor, once remarked that if you want to live in a green and pleasant environment in Hong Kong, you’re better off in a public housing estate than in a private one. Many of the newest public housing estates feature lush gardens, green roofs and living walls. Older housing estates are being retrofitted with community gardens. 20 percent of each new estate built by the Housing Authority is devoted to green space, and the authority plants one tree for every 15 residents.

These days, the biggest problem with public housing in Hong Kong is that there isn’t enough of it. Hong Kong is now the least affordable place in the world to buy housing –the average Hong Kong household would have to save its entire income for 19 years just to afford a typical flat, according to the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey. Yet the construction of public housing has not kept up with demand. By the end of September 2016, there were 286,500 people on the waiting list for a subsidised flat. Most of them will wait up to 4.5 years to get one.

One possibility envisioned by Altered (e)states.
Altered (e)states. Rendering by David Erdman.

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With that in mind, architect David Erdman, who taught at the University of Hong Kong before moving to the Pratt Institute in New York, has proposed a dramatic way to increase the supply of public housing: built new flats on top of existing towers, like how a tree grows new branches. “There are some tricky ways we’ve figured out how to add onto buildings 35 storeys or higher,” says Erdman. Public housing blocks built in the 1980s and 90s have load-bearing concrete walls, so it would be possible to crown them with as many as 20 extra floors of lightweight prefabricated steel.

Erdman says the Housing Authority has expressed interest in his project, which is called Altered (e)states, though it will require more research to find out how exactly it could be implemented. If his plan does come to pass, it could add up to 30 percent more housing units per estate without removing any ground-level public space. And who knows –Hong Kong’s public housing estates might once again be a must-see attraction for visiting dignitaries.


What percentage of Hong Kong people live in public housing? ›

In 2021, 53.4 percent of residents in Hong Kong lived in private permanent housing which was a slight decrease of 0.8 percentage points to the previous years. Another 46 percent of residents lived in public permanent housing.

What is the purpose of public housing in Hong Kong? ›

To help all families in need gain access to adequate and affordable housing.

What caused Hong Kong's housing crisis? ›

A large share of the lowest-income households was locked out of public housing and had to compete for a small pool of low-end private-sector homes. Prices for low-end housing consequently skyrocketed.

What is the housing problem in Hong Kong? ›

Hong Kong is notorious for its number of subdivided flats, estimated at 110,000 units at a median area of 124 square feet, smaller than a parking space. Even though their condition is extremely poor, their floor rent is 70% higher than overall floor rent in the city.

What city has the most public housing? ›

With more than 180,000 public housing units, the New York City Housing Authority is by far the nation's largest public housing authority (PHA).

Do a lot of Americans live in Hong Kong? ›

Hong Kong's strict anti-COVID-19 measures and “diminishing freedoms” have “clearly impacted the city and the people in it,” Greg May said, citing the departure of roughly 15,000 Americans as one of the outcomes. He said about 70,000 Americans and 1,300 U.S. companies are currently present in Hong Kong.

What is the average rent in Hong Kong? ›

The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Hong Kong can range from 12,000 to 20,000 HKD (1,500 to 2,500 USD) or more per month. On the upside, most apartments easily meet the highest standards of living.

Do people own property in Hong Kong? ›

Land in Hong Kong is owned by the Chinese government and the Chief Executive of Hong Kong has the power to grant leases and state land to members of the public for a limited amount of time.

How do people afford homes in Hong Kong? ›

Low income residents can rely on public housing; many middle class residents bought their home in the years when it was cheaper; and high earners obviously have less problems in paying either a rent or a mortgage.

Why is there so much poverty in Hong Kong? ›

Housing expenses, low wages and an ageing population unable to retire are among the most prominent factors. If nothing is done, poverty will only worsen, jeopardising the city's stability and prosperity. So, what can be done? We must first comprehend the reasons for and causes of poverty in Hong Kong.

Why are so many people moving out of Hong Kong? ›

The city's population has now dropped from 7.41 million in mid-2021 to 7.29 million in mid-2022, according to the latest data from Hong Kong's Census and Statistics Department. This exodus over the past year is mainly due to Hong Kong's strict COVID-19 policies and political unrest, multiple China experts told VOA.

What are the main factors causing homelessness in Hong Kong? ›

Social issues that cause homelessness

And in the private rental market there is a chronic shortage of affordable housing. Unemployment reached a 15 year high in 2020 due to the pandemic, resulting in widespread job loss in Hong Kong and an increase homelessness.

Why is housing in Hong Kong so expensive so expensive? ›

The traditional answer for why housing prices are so high in Hong Kong is that land is scarce and this makes it intrinsically expensive, especially in highdemand areas. According to this view, demand has far outstripped the natural scarcity of land supply; therefore, housing prices must rise.

Why is Hong Kong cost of living so high? ›

According to many international surveys, the average cost of living in Hong Kong is consistently among the highest in the world. Accommodation, healthcare, and international schooling––all contribute to the elevated costs.

Why are Hong Kong apartments so small? ›

Found all over Hong Kong, these tiny flats are the result of an imbalance between supply and demand; the increasing demand for and the scarcity of adequate housing has led to skyrocketing property prices.

What is the largest public housing in USA? ›

Queensbridge Houses

Why doesn't public housing work in the US? ›

Land availability and local zoning are the main obstacles to subsidized housing. Building subsidized housing—or for that matter, market rate rental housing—is illegal in most parts of the U.S. Local zoning laws prohibit structures other than single-family detached homes on the majority of land across cities and suburbs ...

How long can Americans stay in Hong Kong? ›

U.S. Citizens visiting Hong Kong for not more than three months/90 days are not required to obtain visas.

Can Americans retire in Hong Kong? ›

American Citizens who have lived in Hong Kong for more than seven years are eligible to apply for Permanent Residence in Hong Kong. American Citizens do not need to renounce their U.S. citizenship to obtain Permanent Residence.

Can an American move to Hong Kong? ›

Apply for a visa

Although it depends on the passport you hold, most people are allowed to land and stay here as a visa-free visitor for seven to 180 days. Working visa: Unless you have a Hong Kong “Right of Abode” or “Right to Land”, you will need a visa to work in Hong Kong.

What is a good salary to live in Hong Kong? ›

The average salary in Hong Kong is 439,000 HKD (Hong Kong Dollar) per year. This amounts to USD 55,928 as per the exchange rates in April 2023.

Is it stressful to live in Hong Kong? ›

Hong Kong still has one of the higher stress levels across the markets surveyed, with unmanageable stress levels raised to 18% in April 2021 (from 14% in December 2020).

How much is a 2 bedroom apartment in Hong Kong? ›

For somebody thinking about moving to Hong Kong, a 2-bedroom apartment would cost more than $3,700 per month to rent on average.

Can an American buy property in Hong Kong? ›

Can foreigners buy properties in Hong Kong? Yes - unlike some countries, Hong Kong allows foreigners (with the exception of a few nationalities) to buy properties in Hong Kong and rent them out without restriction.

Who is the biggest property owner in Hong Kong? ›

Sun Hung Kai is the largest real estate company in Hong Kong by market capitalisation.

How much does it cost to buy a house in Hong Kong? ›

According to the report, the average price of a home in Hong Kong in 2019 is more than $1.2 million. High demand and short supply have driven property prices to “unaffordable” levels in recent years, with the territory planning to build an $80 billion artificial island to help fix the crisis.

Where do rich HK people live? ›

Home to Hong Kong billionaire tycoon Li Ka-shing, the Deep Water Bay neighbourhood is synonymous with luxury living. Individually built mansions are scattered across the lush hills, with access to breathtaking views of the sandy coastlines along the South China Sea.

What is the minimum wage in Hong Kong? ›

The Statutory Minimum Wage rate has been raised from HK$37.5 to HK$40 per hour from Monday.

How much is considered rich in Hong Kong? ›

A multimillionaire is defined by the bank as someone who has more than HK$10 million in total net assets and at least HK$1 million in liquid assets.

Why are there so many millionaires in Hong Kong? ›

In most part this is because Hong Kong is still considered a gateway to China; it's the country's most popular city for international business, Asia's foremost financial centre, and is still regarded as the best place for networking, trading and for accessing the huge mainland China market.

What is the poorest city in Hong Kong? ›

Kwun Tong has replaced Sham Shui Po as the poorest district in Hong Kong, with the latest statistics showing a median household income of HK$22,100 (US$2,815) for residents there last year, almost 30 per cent lower than the overall average.

What is the poorest part of Hong Kong? ›

Sham Shui Po District - Wikipedia.

Why are Hong Kong people leaving Hong Kong? ›

The government said the figures included the movement of Hong Kong residents in and out of the city for various reasons, such as work, study and migration.

Why is Hong Kong so overcrowded? ›

The high price of land in Hong Kong also contributes to its high-density development. Those on low and middle incomes, and even some on high incomes, can only afford to live in high-rise buildings. Despite its very high density, Hong Kong is a still a very livable city compared to other large cities in the world.

Is it hard to live in Hong Kong? ›

Hong Kong is a highly international place, which makes the process of moving there somewhat easy. The procedures are well-defined, bureaucracy minimal, and English is widely spoken. However, a good knowledge of customs regulations will simplify the relocation process even more.

Which country has the most homeless people and why? ›

Syria has the world's highest homeless rate with one-third – roughly 29.6% – of the country's 22 million population being homeless. Syria continues to have the worst displacement situation in the world.

What is Hong Kong's new homeless epidemic? ›

Hong Kong faces a homelessness epidemic produced by its surging property prices and huge wealth gap, according to CUHK Professor Wong Hung. Such street sleepers are largely invisible to ordinary citizens but are a rising demographic.

What are the social problems in Hong Kong? ›

Nowadays, Hong Kong is facing various social problems such as poverty, increasing number of elders, youth drug abuse etc. How the society responses to these problems arousing hot discussion and debate.

What percentage of people in HK live in poverty? ›

The Situation

According to the Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report for 2020, before policy intervention, 23.6 per cent of Hong Kong's population – 1.653 million people – live in poverty. The causes of poverty are interrelated, and that is why Oxfam Hong Kong (OHK) works on a variety of issues.

How big is Hong Kong public housing? ›

As of March 2022, 47 percent of public rental housing in Hong Kong had a flat size between 30 and 39 square meters. That size also accounted for the highest share of public rental housing in the city. Less than 17 percent of flats were larger than 40 square meters.

How many people live in cage homes in Hong Kong? ›

Over 220,000 people live in so-called “subdivided flats”, a dainty euphemism for the 4 by 4 by 6 ft spaces that the city's poor, downtrodden, disabled, and neglected are crammed into at night. Out of sight, out of mind.

How much is Hong Kong public housing? ›

Under the so-called “light public housing” scheme, monthly rent for units measuring 330 sq ft will cost, at most, HK$2,650 (US$338). Flats of similar size at The Henley, a nearby luxury complex developed by Henderson Land Development, can go for HK$15,000.

What is the main cause of poverty in Hong Kong? ›

The population is aging.

This has a dramatic effect on how they are able to pay for housing, food and basic necessities when white collar jobs are taking over the city. The government has provided handouts that have helped many in poverty, but what truly needs to be done is proper job reeducation and reassignment.

Why is rent in Hong Kong so high? ›

The lack of available space and the high number of inhabitants make the Hong Kong housing market very competitive and average rent prices very high. The minimum rent in Hong Kong is about 15,000 HKD (1,900 USD) per month for a simple one-bedroom apartment further away from the center.

How many US citizens live in Hong Kong? ›

The United States consulate estimates there are about 70,000 Americans in Hong Kong as of January 2023, a drop from 85,000 since its 2018 estimate; no census by any US government organization has ever been attempted.

Where do the richest people in Hong Kong live? ›

Deep Water Bay

Individually built mansions are scattered across the lush hills, with access to breathtaking views of the sandy coastlines along the South China Sea. As per Forbes, more than two dozen of the city's billionaires call Deep Water Bay home.

How many public housing units are there in Hong Kong? ›

- Public rental housing units842858
- Subsidised sale flats435444
- Private permanent quarters1 6821 700
Q4 2022Q1 2023
5 more rows

Can you own a house in Hong Kong? ›

Yes, Hong Kong allows foreigners or expats (except a few nationalities) to buy properties in Hong Kong and rent them out without restrictions.

What is the highest rent in Hong Kong? ›

Prada closed a store on Russell Street last year, for which the monthly rent topped $1 million, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reported at the time.


1. Official Vertical City Documentary
(Vertical City)
2. Step Inside The Most Densely Populated Place on Earth...
3. Hong Kong’s residents living in 'coffin' homes
(Sky News)
4. Inside Hong Kong’s cage homes
5. ALOHA Homes: An Innovative Solution to Hawaii's Housing Shortage
(Stanley Chang)
6. HONG KONG MONSTER BUILDING: What it's like to live in Hong Kong's most densely populated building
(Hong Kong 'Hoods)


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