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Inadequate Housing and Children’s Development

The Covid-19 pandemic has lasted for over two years. During severe periods, many people have the experiences of working from home or studying from home. The unprecedented change in daily life leads to the new mode of work or study. Work at home or learn at home became a new normal. If one lives in a spacious home with technology backup, this new normal may be a good alternative. However, for children from low-income families living in subdivided flat, studying from home may bring a series of problem and affect the efficiency of learning as well as personal development.

Kawai, a seven-year-old boy, lives with his mother and a ten-year old sister, in a tiny flat of 100 sq. ft. (9.3 sq. m.) space in Mongkok district in urban Hong Kong. This subdivided unit is too small to have a separate kitchen, and the living room is also the place to cook, to eat, and to sleep. Usually, when his mother is preparing meal, Kawai and his sister are doing homework on a small foldable table next to her mother. When it is dinner time, they would have meal on the same table. After dinner, Kawai may play with her sister and mother on the floor. Sometimes the three go for a walk outside to leave their tiny space for a while. Kawai and her mother sleep on the lower berth of a bunk bed, while her sister sleep above. They are occasionally startled by rats and cockroaches. Poor ventilation makes their home stuffy but they switch on the air conditioner only occasionally in order to save electricity. His mom pays about HK$5,600 (USD720) a month for their unit in an old building. When the pandemic started, many schools switched to online learning, forcing Kawai and other children who live in subdivided flats to use electronic devices in cramped environments amid inadequate lighting conditions.

In the apparent prosperous Hong Kong city, it is estimated that there are some 110,000 households living in subdivided housing out of a 7.8 million population, of which 16 percent (36,000) are under the age of 15. These subdivided units range from 20 sq. ft. to 200 sq. ft., and they are notorious for their substandard conditions, poor hygiene and fire and security hazards. According to a report on the quality of living in subdivided units released by the Society for Community Organization in 2021 August, almost all 347 households surveyed complained about hygiene problems. Many subdivided flats had rats, mosquitoes and bugs. Many units had a makeshift kitchen installed in the living room or a bedroom. Wrongly connected water pipes smelled bad, and water seeped through walls or from the ceiling. Poor ventilation was common, and some units had no windows. The poor environment has taken a heavy toll on the physical and mental health of the more than 226,000 people who live in them. It is indeed inhumane to live in such conditions but the low-income families and individuals cannot afford anything better.

Most subdivided housing tenants said their incomes were meager, with no other choice of lodging. In a city with the world’s most expensive property market and lack affordable housing, their hope is to get a public rental flat. The average waiting time for public housing is almost six years, with more than 253,000 applicants currently on the waiting list, according to the Housing Authority. Grassroots families living in subdivided flats spend more than half of their income on rent, and that 70% of low-income families with children lived below the poverty line, making it difficult for them to provide additional educational resources for their children.

Living in such poor conditions affects tenants’ physical and mental health. The Kwai Chung Subdivided Flat Residents Alliance found in a survey last year (2021) that about three in four of 78 people living in inadequate housing units suffered moderate to severe depression, and more than two in five had moderate to severe anxiety. Another survey conducted between 2020 and 2021 by the Caritas Community Development Service of 527 households living in inadequate housing, including subdivided units, asked tenants to score their physical and mental well-being on a scale of up to 100. Three in five scored below 50 for physical health, and more than nine in 10 scored below 50 for mental health. Many suffered muscle strain, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory problems, as well as mental disorders, and some blamed their poor living conditions.

In the past two years, due to the epidemic, Hong Kong primary and secondary school students have had to suspend classes many times and stay at home for a long time, which has especially affected the growth of children living in subdivided flats – a kind of inadequate and inappropriate housing. It has caused many negative emotions and feelings of powerlessness to children. Since it is more difficult for grass-roots families to provide children with diverse activities, lives became more difficult for these children under the epidemic. In the long run, it poses a threat to the mental health of children.

The Kwai Chung Children’s Broadcasting Channel, run by the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui Lady MacLehose Centre together with a group of children, conducted a survey on children living in subdivided flats early this year. A total of 70 valid questionnaires were collected. More than 90% of the children interviewed agreed that the environment in the subdivided room is too cramped, which will make children feel uncomfortable and affect their growth. The survey found that nearly 80% of the children surveyed said that their eyesight and physical fitness had deteriorated significantly during the epidemic, which was believed to be related to the long hours of online classes and lack of exercise. Due to the suspension of classes, children in subdivided rooms not only have no basic weekly physical exercise lesson, but the cramped home environment and closure of public playgrounds has also resulted in the deterioration of children’s physical fitness.

As for the ideal home environment conditions, the children interviewed claimed that hygiene and ventilation are the primary conditions they want, followed by having an individual room and the flat is large enough for the family to live. Moreover, according to the survey results, children hope that they could live in a community with facilities such as libraries, parks, playgrounds, markets, sports grounds, transportation facilities, and free Wi-Fi. These are all basic facilities that allow children to grow in a healthy environment. As stated in his Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio of 1967, Pope Paul VI insisted that “the development of peoples must be well rounded; it must foster the development of each person and of the whole person (#14).” Such development includes socioeconomic, political, cultural and spiritual aspects. This is also true to children and youth. In a developed place like Hong Kong, children should be allowed to enjoy basic rights concerning growth and development, including housing, hygiene, community life and equal access to educational resources.

In 2021 November, when speaking about migrant and refugee children, Pope Francis stated that protecting children means respecting the different phases of their development and growth and allowing them to benefit from appropriate conditions in which to blossom. The Pope said, “Protecting children means acting in such a way as to open up horizons for them as free, honest and caring citizens.” This is also true for any child living in a city like Hong Kong.

Recently, the Hong Kong government has proposed a mentorship program with subsidies to the youth living in subdivided flat. This is a good suggestion. However, given the undesirable living condition in subdivided flats, the most practical thing to help children living in such places is to speed up building public housing so that grassroots children and their families can live in decent housing as soon as possible. This is an important step in getting rid of intergenerational poverty.