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Soaring housing prices raise demand for tiny homes
HONG KONG — With its marble-clad lobby, sweeping balcony views and sleek, modern decor, Donny Chan’s apartment building would seem the kind of upscale tower most young Hong Kong professionals aspire to live in.
But not for Chan, 39, who avoids spending time in his 19th-floor apartment because it measures just 193 square feet (about 14 feet by 14 feet). His parking space-sized studio in the grandly named High One building is part of a growing trend for so-called micro apartments that are diminutive even by the standards of space-starved and densely built Hong Kong.
“Every time that I step back into this (apartment) I kind of feel like a cat squeezed into a box,” said Chan, an art director at a medical equipment maker. To avoid returning to his cramped and claustrophobic apartment before bedtime he plays basketball or badminton, goes to the movies or karaoke bars, and gets together with friends and family.
“I go walking in shopping malls until the last minute when they close,” he said.
Micro-sized: Hong Kong’s property developers are scaling down, way down, for younger, middle-class buyers, offering micro-sized upscale apartments with eye-popping price tags. The apartments, dubbed “mosquito-size units” or “gnat flats” in Chinese, are drawing online ridicule and underscore worries over the Asian financial hub’s overheated real estate market and widening inequality.
Hong Kong is often ranked the world’s costliest housing market.
Its micro-flat boom parallels tiny house and minimalist living trends seen in the U.S. and other developed countries. The difference is that in Hong Kong, few make the choice willingly. Chan moved in last year after splitting up with his wife. He viewed 20 other apartments over three weeks but they were all more expensive, in worse condition or farther from his job.
When they first appeared, micro-flats were mostly snapped up by investors renting them for above-average returns. The government has moved to cool such speculation, and most demand now comes from people needing a place to live, said Ingred Cheh, research manager at Jones Lang Lasalle.
Privileged: Even so, their extravagant prices mean the young buyers who can afford the prison cell or parking lot sized units already are privileged by Hong Kong standards, said Edward Yiu, a lawmaker representing architects and surveyors.
Transaction records show Chan’s landlord bought the unit from developer Henderson Land for about $500,000 in 2015. Chan’s rent is $1,300 a month, or a third of his monthly salary. He said he’d never consider buying such a small place to live. The down payment on a bigger apartment, if he were to buy, would mean “I’ll be saving until the day I die.”
Last year, developer MT Sisters’ AVA 55 project sold units as small as 166 square feet for as much as $500,000. Blueprints showed the builder was eliminating separate shower stalls, including them in the toilets, to save space, an arrangement usually only found in older buildings.
It took decades for the government to provide housing for the city’s hundreds of thousands of refugees from mainland China, and personal living space has always been at a premium. But apartments are indeed shrinking.
Shrinking: Last year, developers built 206 apartments smaller than 215 square feet, up from 79 in 2015 and none in 2012. This year, 30 percent of the 17,122 apartments set to be completed will be smaller than 430 square feet. That ratio will rise to 43 percent in 2018.
Most Hong Kongers have a fraction of the space seen in other advanced economies, where average living space ranges from 430 to 538 square feet per person, or in mainland Chinese cities, where it measures 323 square feet. Residents of Hong Kong’s numerous public housing estates, meanwhile, get less than 140 square feet.
Life in a micro apartment has forced Chan to downsize across the board.
When he moved in, he estimates he sold off or threw out 40 percent of his possessions — suits, basketball shoes, comic books, model cars and planes — because they wouldn’t fit. He stores the rest of his stuff at his parents’ place or in boxes supporting his single mattress. There’s a narrow wardrobe, a pint-sized loveseat and an undersized coffee table, but no space for a TV.
Parties are out of the question: there’s only enough space for one or two visitors.
The apartment’s minuscule open kitchen includes a space-saving sink that converts to countertop. There are six cans of soda in his half-size fridge: Chan says he never cooks.
“Once you cook, the smell will last for days,” he complained.
Chan plans to move to Hong Kong’s semi-rural suburbs when his lease is up, where he might get twice as much space but face a lengthy commute. Even after his ex-wife bought out his share of their home, he has little hope of buying property again.
“I can’t even find the door to enter the market,” he said. “”I can’t imagine how young people can afford their own houses in such circumstances.”
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