Rooftop slum

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Rooftop slums in Hong Kong

Rooftop Slum (Chinese: 天台屋) or penthouse slum generally refers to illegal housing on the rooftops of apartment buildings. In Hong Kong, some poor people are unable to afford traditional apartments and are forced to wait years for affordable public housing. They are forced to seek alternatives, like living in illegal huts on top of buildings.[1] According to the Hong Kong Population Census, there were about 3,982 rooftop dwellers in 2006,[2] and are now estimated in the tens of thousands,[1] most of whom were found in the old Kowloon districts of Sham Shui Po, Kwun Tong, and Tai Kok Tsui.[3]


A housing crisis developed in the 1950s and 1960s when a large number of refugees left mainland China and moved to Hong Kong, creating a large, unmet demand for affordable housing options.[4]

Blockhouse (Chinese: 木屋) and rooftop slums, which are low cost and offer poor living environments, became more prevalent in Hong Kong beginning in the early 1970s. In the 1970s to 1980s, there was significant economic development which also brought increased housing costs. The government continued to be unaware of the need for affordable housing for its citizens, creating greater pressure for people to find low rent options, like rooftop slums.[1][4]

Rising rental costs, the lack of affordable housing, and length of time to get into public housing means that people continue to live in rooftop slums.[5]

Rooftop neighborhoods[edit]

The cubicle dwellings, generally built atop tenement buildings of the 1950s and 1960s,[3] range from 9 to 28 square metres (97 to 301 sq ft) may be built with concrete and brick walls, while others are built like shanties out of wood and tin. Between the shanties are narrow passageways. Some may have an area for growing plants or vegetables. There may be a common area to dry laundry. The sturdier buildings may have air conditioning units. The Hoi On Building in Tai Kok Tsui had 100 people living on the rooftop before it was leveled for new development, part of redevelopment projects made easier through a new policy that allows new construction of apartment buildings or shopping centers on the sites of old buildings. People that are removed from the rooftop neighborhood may end up having to live in an industrial building in a cage or cubicle.[1][3]

"Legal" apartments sell for more than HK$ million, while the rooftop slum dwellings generally sell on a grey market for less than HK$50,000.[1] The shanty homes are contrasted against legal apartments of Hong Kong, the "world's most expensive luxury city".[6]

Many people have lived in rooftop dwelling for 30 years. Newer residents are from other Asian countries, like Nepal or Pakistan, or from mainland China.[3]


Hygiene and health[edit]

One of the repercussions of rooftop slums is poor hygiene due to water leakage:[7] the dwellings are generally made of non-water resistant materials, like wood, and there are no drainage systems for rainwater. Further complicating hygiene is the presence of rats, cockroaches, flies, and mosquitoes on the crowded, dirty rooftops, that spread diseases and contaminate food.[citation needed]

The slums become a breeding place for viruses and bacteria and dwellers are susceptible to infectious and respiratory illnesses. Temperature of slums is higher than the exterior due to poor ventilation system and energy-absorbing metal.[citation needed]

As there is no elevator, dwellers need to walk the stairs to their high-up home, which is difficult for elderly, particularly if they have joint problems.[citation needed]


Because the dwellings are made of lightweight materials, they are not designed to withstand heavy storms and typhoons. Fire is also a danger, especially for buildings with a single exit versus a double exit. Buildings with single fire exits are tagged for top priority demolition due to the danger.[3][7]

Escaping the rooftop in a hurry is further challenged by narrow passageways encumbered by possessions. Another safety risk is the weight that the rooftop dweller place on the building that was not designed to accommodate the rooftop slums.[citation needed]

Also, metal easily becomes rusty under high temperature and humidity, staining walls and furniture.[citation needed]

Crowded conditions[edit]

Rooftop slums are a series of tightly placed dwellings. There can be more than one hundred people[1] living on one rooftop in dwellings that can only accommodate a few pieces of furniture and electrical appliances. The crowded conditions, with limited facilities, makes for a poor living environment.[citation needed]

Mental health[edit]

Rooftop slum dwellers usually have a low self-esteem and quality of life. Complaints include feeling as if people look down on them for where they live[3] and feeling unhappy to have no choice but to live in the old, dilapidated houses.[7]

As the rooftop slums are unauthorized buildings, dwellers constantly worry about demolition of their home. Some claim that they’d rather be dead if they have to live in a new place.[1]


The plight of several thousands[3] or tens of thousands of people living in rooftop slums is gaining media attention, but there are still not enough safe, affordable housing options for Hong Kong's citizens. Because there is an inadequate supply of housing, removing people from their rooftop dwellings isn't a viable option. So, the Hong Kong government has few options in the short term.[1] Social worker Sze Lai-Shan, who works for the Society for Community Organization and has urged the government to provide more public rental housing, said:

The government doesn't know much about this and they don’t bother to know because they don’t have a rehousing policy for these people... They don’t want to make them (the rooftop dwellers) homeless, so they let them stay.

— Sze Lai-Shan[1]

There is insufficient public housing to meet the demand. There are about 15,000 new apartment units built every year, but there are more than 300,000 people on the waiting list for public housing. The available housing may be out on the outlying islands surrounding Hong Kong. Even if rooftops’ families are assigned a regular apartment, the cost of transportation to work or their children's school, such as a school in Kowloon that have a "program designed to help ethnic minorities and new immigrants learn Cantonese," may prevent them from being able to leave the slums.[1] Some wish to stay in their illegal dwelling because of the easy access to the city and beautiful views.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Christopher DeWolf (27 September 2011). "Slums in the sky: Hong Kong rooftop squatters". CNN.
  2. ^ "2006 Population By-Census Summary results" (PDF). Population By-Census Office & Census and Statistics Department. 2006.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Peter Shadbolt (2 November 2011). "Slums with penthouse views highlight Hong Kong's wealth divide". CNN.
  4. ^ a b "石七刀 (9 June 012). 讓歷史重光".
  5. ^ Aris Teon (4 May 2013). "Skyscrapers and skyslums-Hong Kong's rooftop houses". My new life in Asia - Blogspot.
  6. ^ Saga MacFarland (23 September 2011). "World's most expensive luxury city is..." CNN. Archived from the original on 5 November 2013. Retrieved 13 December 2013.
  7. ^ a b c Sybil Wendler (27 February 2012), Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Once Upon a Rooftop, YouTube