Feb132013

What is the minimum level of housing quality people are entitled to?

If you ask many middle-class loanowners in coastal California, and they will tell you that they are entitled to a 2,000+ SF detached single-family home pimped out with pergraniteel — and they will really mean it. The sense of entitlement in coastal California is appalling to anyone viewing it from the outside (and even some of us viewing it from the inside).

There are places on earth where there is no housing entitlement. Even the US has a problem with homelessness and people living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. However, the homeless here have access to shelters and other forms of assistance. In some countries, there is little or no assistance either public or private to help out those in need.

The most callous free-market advocates would suggest that people should fear homelessness and destitution so they will be motivated to work and produce goods and services for the benefit of society. I noted that the fear of homelessness is the basis of America’s economic system. It may make for principled debate, but when faced with the reality of grinding poverty, most people conclude something should be done to provide a minimal level of safe and sanitary housing. Unfortunately for those caught in poverty, the public and private institutions that define this minimum standard vary considerably across the world, and if you’re poor in an area where the minimum standard is very low, your quality of life is near zero.

Poor in cages show dark side of Hong Kong boom

By KELVIN CHAN | Associated Press – Thu, Feb 7, 2013

HONG KONG (AP) — For many of the richest people in Hong Kong, one of Asia’s wealthiest cities, home is a mansion with an expansive view from the heights of Victoria Peak. For some of the poorest, like Leung Cho-yin, home is a metal cage.

The 67-year-old former butcher pays 1,300 Hong Kong dollars ($167) a month for one of about a dozen wire mesh cages resembling rabbit hutches crammed into a dilapidated apartment in a gritty, working-class West Kowloon neighborhood.

The cages, stacked on top of each other, measure 1.5 square meters (16 square feet). To keep bedbugs away, Leung and his roommates put thin pads, bamboo mats, even old linoleum on their cages’ wooden planks instead of mattresses.

“I’ve been bitten so much I’m used to it,” said Leung, rolling up the sleeve of his oversized blue fleece jacket to reveal a red mark on his hand. “There’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve got to live here. I’ve got to survive,” he said as he let out a phlegmy cough.

Look at the picture and reread the description of how this guy lives. Also bear in mind that there are people living in far worse conditions in slums in other countries. So I ask you, is this person’s living conditions adequate? Should tax dollars be spent to raise the standard of living for everyone to a minimum standard better than this?

These are more than academic questions. Even if we can all agree on a suitable definition for “adequate” housing, it is very expensive to provide. The reason most governments don’t do more is because of the enormous cost. How much more are you willing to pay in taxes to elevate people out of living conditions like this? How far and wide are you willing to spread your tax dollars? Would you agree with your government funding housing in Bangladesh?

There is also the broader problem of the poor responding to improved conditions by having more children. The more people we elevate out of poverty, the more people we have, and the larger the problem gets. There is no simple solution, or we would have eradicated poverty generations ago.

Some 100,000 people in the former British colony live in what’s known as inadequate housing, according to the Society for Community Organization, a social welfare group. The category also includes apartments subdivided into tiny cubicles or filled with coffin-sized wood and metal sleeping compartments as well as rooftop shacks. They’re a grim counterpoint to the southern Chinese city’s renowned material affluence.

Forced by skyrocketing housing prices to live in cramped, dirty and unsafe conditions, their plight also highlights one of the biggest headaches facing Hong Kong’s unpopular Beijing-backed leader: growing public rage over the city’s housing crisis. …

Skyrocketing real estate prices are part of the cycle here in California as well. We responded with a plethora of government assistance programs that burden taxpayers while providing dubious results.

Leung, the cage dweller, had little faith that the government could do anything to change the situation of people like him.”It’s not whether I believe him or not, but they always talk this way. What hope is there?” said Leung, who has been living in cage homes since he stopped working at a market stall after losing part of a finger 20 years ago. With just a Grade 7 education, he was only able to find intermittent casual work. He hasn’t applied for public housing because he doesn’t want to leave his roommates to live alone and expects to spend the rest of his life living in a cage.

Does anyone who wasn’t convicted of a serious crime deserve to believe they will spend the rest of their lives living in a cage?

His only income is HK$4,000 ($515) in government assistance each month. After paying his rent, he’s left with $2,700 ($350), or about HK$90 ($11.60) a day.

“It’s impossible for me to save,” said Leung, who never married and has no children to lean on for support.

Leung and his roommates, all of them single, elderly men, wash their clothes in a bucket. The bathroom facilities consist of two toilet stalls, one of them adjoining a squat toilet that doubles as a shower stall. There is no kitchen, just a small room with a sink. The hallway walls have turned brown with dirt accumulated over the years.

I guess China doesn’t have an AARP.

While cage homes, which sprang up in the 1950s to cater mostly to single men coming in from mainland China, are becoming rarer, other types of substandard housing such as cubicle apartments are growing as more families are pushed into poverty. Nearly 1.19 million people were living in poverty in the first half of last year, up from 1.15 million in 2011, according to the Hong Kong Council Of Social Services. There’s no official poverty line but it’s generally defined as half of the city’s median income of HK$12,000 ($1,550) a month.

Many poor residents have applied for public housing but face years of waiting. Nearly three-quarters of 500 low-income families questioned by Oxfam Hong Kong in a recent survey had been on the list for more than 4 years without being offered a flat.

Any commodity where demand outstrips supply with either see a dramatic increase in price (such as house prices in California right now) or it will be rationed, which is what’s happening in Hong Kong with affordable housing.

Lee Tat-fong, is one of those waiting. The 63-year-old is hoping she and her two grandchildren can get out of the cubicle apartment they share in their Wan Chai neighborhood, but she has no idea how long it will take.

Lee, who suffers from diabetes and back problems, takes care of Amy, 9, and Steven, 13, because their father has disappeared and their mother — her daughter — can’t get a permit to come to Hong Kong from mainland China. An uncle occasionally lends a hand.

The three live in a 50-square-foot room, one of seven created by subdividing an existing apartment. A bunk bed takes up half the space, a cabinet most of the rest, leaving barely enough room to stand up in. The room is jammed with their possessions: plastic bags filled with clothes, an electric fan, Amy’s stuffed animals, cooking utensils.

“There’s too little space here. We can barely breathe,” said Lee, who shares the bottom bunk with her grandson.

They share the communal kitchen and two toilets with the other residents. Welfare pays their HK$3,500 monthly rent and the three get another HK$6,000 for living expenses but the money is never enough, especially with two growing children to feed. Lee said the two often wanted to have McDonalds because they were still hungry after dinner, which on a recent night was meager portions of rice, vegetables and meat.

The struggle to raise her two grandkids in such conditions was wearing her out.

“It’s exhausting,” she said. “Sometimes I get so pent up with anger, and I cry but no one sees because I hide away.”

Fighting poverty is better than supporting loanowner entitlements

Many people who read my daily posts assume I must be an extreme right-winger because I believe in free markets and decry the loanowner bailouts proposed by the extreme left. I do not identify with the political Right. In fact, I consider myself a left-leaning Libertarian. I am not opposed to all forms of government assistance. I believe there are problems and issues the government can rectify or remediate or even totally solve. I understand most government programs are wasteful, but I am willing to pay the price if there is real good that comes from the assistance that isn’t wasted. Alleviating the symptoms of poverty, including providing a minimum standard of housing, is a cause I can support. If I am going to see my tax dollars wasted, I would far rather see it go toward helping those in poverty than I would to see my tax dollars go toward principal reduction or other bailouts for loanowners who are “suffering” the loss of their entitlements.