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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Improving Life in a Shoebox

Apr. 17, 2017

Hong Kong is one of the most densely-populated places in the world. People there have been cramming into ever-smaller apartment rooms as developers from mainland China buy up real estate. For some, the living conditions have become quite severe.

On the outskirts of Hong Kong sits an area of dense apartment complexes.

NHK visited a family that lives there, the Zhangs (pseudonym).

Both parents in the Zhang family work at a restaurant.

Their combined income is about 2,000 US dollars a month. This is not a particularly low income in Hong Kong.

Even so, the family of four lives in a room that’s about 13 square meters, including the bathroom.

There’s no storage space. They keep their clothes in bags hanging from the wall.

Their daughter says, “It’s small. I can't even breathe.”

Their apartment costs around 500 dollars a month, and it's the largest the Zhangs can afford. They can’t sleep comfortably, or even just move around.

The mother of the family says, "I’m concerned about our children’s health. They’re growing up in such a cramped space."

In fact, a small unit like this would once have been part of a large room in a single household. Those rooms were subdivided, so they could be rented to several families.

The units are called “tong fangs,” which means “room divided into small sections.”

About 200,000 people in Hong Kong live in tong fangs. The city's high density has led to a chronic housing shortage.

The housing situation is made worse by money flowing in from mainland China.

One section of land in the suburbs is a more than a 30-minute drive from the city center. The location is inconvenient, but the land fetched over 2 billion dollars — the highest price on record in Hong Kong.

It was bought by Chinese developers. In recent years, investors from the mainland have bought a great deal of land here. As a result, housing prices have tripled in the last 10 years. Only wealthy people can afford to buy at these soaring prices.

One man went to university in the United States and now works for a financial institution in Hong Kong. He plans to purchase an apartment for more than 600,000 dollars. And he expects its value to increase.

He says, "Apartments are investments, so some people buy three or four instead of just one.”

As a result, Hong Kong’s housing gap has widened further. The grave situation faced by people with low incomes is fueling a sense of crisis.

Simon Yau is an Associate Professor at the City University of Hong Kong. He says, "People with limited budget can only afford small rooms. Housing problems have made people reluctant to get married and have children."

One NPO, DOMAT, is working to improve the lives of people living in tong fangs. It's represented by architect Maggie Ma.

Ma offers free advice on how to make the most of small spaces. She’s funded by donations from companies.

She says, "I want an environment where children can study.”

Ma has been providing furniture that’s suited to cramped spaces, such as folding pieces. She's helped about 50 families living in tong fangs.

Explaining one model, she explains, "During the day, it can be used as a table or desk, for dining or homework. Then at night it turns into a bed, like this."

One family received furniture from Ma’s NPO.

The mother of the family says, "They’ve made us two study desks and two shelves.”

Before, there was little storage space, and no place for the children to study. So Ma provided desks and shelves.

The shelves make use of previously unused wall space. The desk is pulled out only when it’s needed.

The mother says, "My daughter finally has somewhere to study without moving things around. I feel so grateful."

Residents of tong fangs manage to make their cramped quarters as comfortable as possible.

They are longing for the day when they'll move out of their small rooms and begin news lives in more spacious surroundings.