【明報專訊】We live in smaller and smaller places. Many major cities like London, New York, Sydney, and Hong Kong have seen skyrocketing home prices that leave many, especially young people, out of their dream of owning homes. As a "creative" solution, developers and architects have designed "nano flats" to supply to a market of consumers who are priced out of normal-sized homes.
While the term nano flats carries a hint of humour, its nickname "gnat flats" does not. The nickname vividly tells the story of how urban residents must learn not only how to squeeze themselves into tiny spaces, but also how to downsize their belongings, when they live in flats that are classed as saleable areas as small as 60 sq ft and no bigger than 200 sq ft. Newly built, these nano flats look clean and pleasant and are marketed to young professional couples keen to move out of shared housing into their own private spaces. Some developers have also built tiny "capsule apartments" (e.g. using converted drainpipes) to appeal to students looking to live independently. They have a futuristic look, yet they feel cold and sterile, resembling space capsules that are barely bigger than a single mattress.
These nano flats are often marketed as a so-called creative solution to an undesirable situation. Yet they mask the underlying causes, which have to do with a combination of policy, cultural, and consumerist mentalities. Unlike cities such as London, New York, and Sydney, Hong Kong currently does not have a legal minimum space limit for private residential units. The government refuses to follow the example of those other major cities, on the grounds that size regulation will adversely affect affordability. Many people still hold on to the idea of buying and owning one's private home as a desired cultural dream. It is apparently a mark of one's success, even though ironically the home one can afford buying could be smaller than a parking space or a prison cell. Meanwhile, this traditional consumer desire fuels the spread of shrinking home sizes at ever-increasing prices.
Nano flats are but a glamorised version of the unregulated subdivided apartment units that are found everywhere in our city. Many partitioned apartment units are actually illegal conversions. Often poorly constructed and windowless, these small units are a fire hazard. Worse, they recall the shameful history of "cage living" or "coffin living" of poor people and immigrants. In a recent government report, one out of five Hong Kong residents are classified as living under the poverty line. Many of them are still forced to rent the "cages," which are cramped and squalid spaces stacked on top of each other with barely any room to move.
If, over the years, many studies have shown us how cramped living can lead to mental distress (such as depression, anxiety, and a sense of shame) and negative social behaviour (such as domestic abuse and substance abuse), will those new nano flats that are marketed as an idealised solution make the occupants happy?
John Erni is a university professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. He thinks everyday culture is complex but always enchanting.