Business

Finding a home in a rich crowded city

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Media captionThe entrepreneurs providing shelter and homes to those in dire need in South Africa and Hong Kong

With more than half of the global population living in towns and cities, possessing a "room of one's own" is an understandable desire.

By 2030, the number of city-dwellers is expected to shoot up to five billion - with the biggest growth in Africa and Asia. Yet more than 100 million people worldwide are homeless, with 1.6 billion estimated to be living in shelter which doesn't meet basic human needs.

So what can be done about this? Well, Juliana Liu visited a social enterprise in Hong Kong aimed at giving single mothers a home rather than a square patch of ground, while Karen Schoonbee met an innovator in Cape Town, South Africa, whose designs helps the homeless keep warm.


Light Be, Hong Kong

Image copyright Juliana Liu
Image caption In Hong Kong, some people live in the most cramped spots

Nearly a year ago, Jacklin Fung left a shabby, windowless sub-divided apartment with her daughter and moved into a much larger flat with spacious views of Hong Kong's rolling hills.

"It was very difficult to live that way," she says about her previous accommodation.

"There was so little space. It definitely affected my daughter. We would have to go out nearly all the time and use public spaces, including to find somewhere to do our homework."

Now, Ms Fung and the two other mothers together pay about HK$10,000 (US$1289 ; £912) in rent, less than half the market price of what their three-bedroom flat in an upper-middle class district would normally command.

Needy families

They are clients of Light Be, a three year-old social enterprise in Hong Kong that provides low-cost housing to needy families.

This city has the least affordable property prices in the world, according to the latest annual survey by the US-based think tank Demographia. In fact, median prices in 2015 were 19 times the median annual household income before tax, the highest level in the dozen years that the organisation has conducted the global survey. The average person has just 160 square feet of living space.

Image copyright Juliana Liu
Image caption Jacklin Fung didn't have much space to live in

The poorest citizens live in sub-divided apartments and often have less than 50 square feet of space per person, so about the size of a king-size bed.

Hong Kong does provide subsidised public housing, but the waiting list is long and it can take years to finally move in.

"This huge housing and income disparity problem is very serious in Hong Kong," says Ricky Yu, the company's founder and chief executive. Formerly an executive at a direct sales firm, he started the venture because of a "mid-life crisis" of wanting to do something he enjoyed, instead of just collecting a pay check.

He had no experience in property or social work when he began in 2013. But since then, Light Be has been of assistance to more than 120 families.

Its business model is simple: landlords lease their properties to Light Be at very low rates, sometimes because they live overseas and want to rent their property to an organisation which will help take care of it, but often simply because they want to be charitable.

The company then sub-lets the property to clients, who pay varying amounts according to what they can afford. Light Be makes money from the difference between what the landlord charges, and what the clients pay. Mr Yu says this amount is typically 40% to 50% of what the client pays in rent.

Image copyright julliana liu
Image caption Ricky Yu wanted to help people find a home in one of the world's most expensive cities

His company is on track to become profitable within two years. After it turns a profit, half of those profits will be donated to its charitable foundation, he says.

Potential clients are referred to the company by social workers. Ms Fung, for example, pays her rent with welfare money allocated by the city government for housing.

She is divorced and receives no regular child-support payment from her ex-husband. And health issues mean she is unable to earn a regular income.

So far, Light Be clients have all been single mothers with children. They can stay in their flats for up to three years. During this period, they are visited by social workers and receive counselling and career-planning support.

Starting this month, needy families of all configurations will be moving into a newly-refurbished building in a Hong Kong suburb.

The building was a dormitory for factory workers until it was abandoned decades ago, when many such jobs moved to mainland China.

After renovations funded by the Chow Tai Fook Charity Foundation, 40 families will be able to receive low-cost housing, while they work to get back on their feet.


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Street Sleeper, Cape Town, South Africa

Image caption The survival bags are made from upcycled vinyl billboards

Caroline Abrahams has been living on the streets in Cape Town since she was 11. These days, her address is a cardboard box across the road from South African's Parliament building. Fluffy, her white Maltese Poodle is always at her side.

Today the 47-year-old has a smile on her face. If it is cold or wet tonight, she will still be snug. She has been given a "Street Sleeper" survival bag by Oliver Brain.

Mr Brain, Street Sleeper's founder, makes these sleeping bags for homeless people from upcycled vinyl billboards.

Since he started the organisation in March 2014, it has handed out 2,200 sleeping bags in Cape Town and beyond, while preventing four tonnes of PVC from being dumped at landfills. He aims to distribute another 3,000 bags within the next year.

"Some people say we are enabling homelessness. The fact is the facilities we have in the city cannot meet the demand," he says.

A recent study by the city found 7,383 homeless people live in Cape Town, of which about one third were accommodated in shelters while the rest slept on the streets. Migration also played a significant role — only 65% of the individuals sampled were born in Cape Town.

Mr Brain believes a lot of people come from rural places in the hope of finding employment in the big cities but when they get there they cannot find jobs and end up living on the streets.

Double use

He speaks about how his need to connect with those he met made him come up with the idea. "I felt I was not addressing homeless people in the way I would have like to be addressed. I felt disconnected [from them as people] and I wanted to do something."

A mechatronics engineer by training and an innovator at heart, he wanted to use his skills to come up with a solution.

Image caption Caroline Abrahams now has shelter she can take anywhere with her

"I'm always questioning, always looking for a way to approach a problem."

It did not take the 32-year-old long to spot all the billboards around the city and realise that there was material in plain sight which could be recycled. He set up a meeting with billboard companies and two weeks' later he had made his first sleeping bag.

Homeless people often have their few belongings confiscated by city officials cleaning the walkways, or stolen. Mr Brain's sleeping bags double up as a backpack. "All your belongings can be stored inside and carried with you," he says.

Mr Brain, who still has another day job, says they wanted to be community-funded. "We ask people to fund a sleeping bag online at US$11 a bag." This pays for a small staff of three people.

"We send the bags out to people to hand out in their own community", he says.

Mr Brain hopes to break down social barriers with the connections made between homeless people and those who want to give out the bags.

He adds: "People should not have a blinkered view of life. I believe everyone deserves to be on a level playing field when being valued and I want the homeless to feel empowered and valued."

Mr Brain would like to see Street Sleeper hubs replicated in other cities around the world. "It might even help with the migrant crisis Europe faces at the moment," he says.

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