To survive in Hong Kong, considered by many to be the world’s least affordable housing market, takes either a great deal of money or a great deal of ingenuity.
That’s why one eclectic group of middle class families set sail for the Discovery Bay Marina Club, a mooring place for some 180 house boats on the northeast coast of Lantau, one of the many islands and other seaside landmasses that make up China’s semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong. For these and many other families in the territory, known for its needle-thin skyscrapers packed with costly but tiny apartment units, live-aboard vessels provided an affordable living space in a city notoriously short of it. Tranquil, spacious, economical — life on the water seemed like the perfect solution.
But that dream appears to be coming to an abrupt end. On Aug. 31, residents of the marina club, known by its acronym DBMC, were blindsided by an announcement tacked unceremoniously to their community notice board telling them they had four months to vacate for “extensive repair, renovation and maintenance works.” Residents were given until Dec. 31 to relocate, with no indication of whether they’ll be allowed to return.
In Hong Kong, a Chinese territory of about 7.3 million people, the average household size is 430 sq. ft., and 90% of households live in less than 753 sq. ft. (By comparison, the average apartment size in the U.S. is reportedly around 880 sq. ft.) About seven miles west of the city center, as the crow flies, is the suburban oasis of Discovery Bay, an upmarket residential development of 20,000 people. The marina that has lined its waterfront for almost three decades is in itself a tight-knit community made up of both expatriates and locals.
Dan Mangel, a 50-year-old pilot from Indiana, moved here with his family nearly six years ago. Instead of squeezing his wife, three kids and a dog into a 450 sq. ft. flat, he pays a monthly mortgage of $9,000 for his 2,200 sq. ft. boat so that each can have their own room — a rare privilege for Hong Kong families. These boats aren’t mega-yachts, but they provide a safe, pleasant alternative to cramped and expensive housing — assuming there’s somewhere to park it. For the first time this summer that ceased to be the case; up until August, residents like Mangel had leased their boats on 10-year debentures, or long-term securities with fixed interest rates. This had been the status quo since they’d arrived, so they were surprised to be informed that they would no longer be renewed. “We definitely feel betrayed by the club,” Mangel says.
“Initially we were all shocked because this option was probably the worst case scenario, and no one was expecting the marina club to make such a decision,” says Henry Moreno, 40, a pilot and chairman of a 208-member DBMC community group. He has lived in the marina for two years with his wife and two kids. “They broke the trust we have in them,” he says.
Leaving is not as simple as revving up the engine and dropping anchor somewhere else. Residents say that with a surplus of boats on the current market, selling would be difficult. Mangel’s boat, which he says was originally valued at about $768,000, is now worth less than one-tenth of its initial value. Relocating would also pose problems in Hong Kong, where there’s a major shortage of berth space. The city has only about 5,000 public and private moorings and dry berths where 9,748 licensed pleasure vessels, as most of the city’s house boats are legally classified, can park. There’s talk of temporarily using a typhoon shelter, but it has no running water or electricity, and such renovations would take at least until April.
Residents have sought answers from the club, but boat owners say its representatives are not responsive. With so few options, residents are being forced to consider extreme alternatives, such as renting a flat on land in addition to the costs of mooring their boats, selling off their floating homes, or leaving Hong Kong altogether. “Not knowing what will happen is causing a lot of stress on the family,” says Mangel. “We’re having to make tough decisions without having all of the information, so there’s a lot of second guessing — are we doing the right thing?”
As disruptive as residents say the move is, it appears to be legal. The rolling over of debentures, as the club has automatically done every ten years, was precedented but never promised. In October, DBMC offered residents temporary three month extensions for US$19,200, but without access to water, power or security. Residents say this is an outrageous deal and refuse to accept it. In early December, the club added insult to injury by saying that if residents stayed without signing temporary contracts, they would be charged up to $1,540 per day in berthing fees — upwards of $46,000 per month. Depending on the boat’s size, residents currently pay up to $5,985 per month in berthing fees.
“Members have known this expiry date since acquisition of their debentures,” the club wrote in a statement to TIME. “We appreciate some may have hoped for further extension, but it is now vital that we do a full closure and renovation to maintain the safety and quality of the club and its mooring facilities. Such a large-scale renovation requires detailed study and preliminary work.” The statement offered no clues as to whether the current residents will be welcomed back, but said that all applicants will be considered “under the new membership conditions” and other legal requirements once the club reopens.
The feud has only gotten messier in recent weeks, as residents have reportedly been visited by Marine Department officials looking into whether they had been living there illegally. Roderick Miller, a Hong Kong solicitor familiar with the case, says that technically, they have, “but you’ve got to look at it in context.” Historically a fishing village, Hong Kong enacted a law in 1983 that made living on boats a criminal offense punishable by a fine or prison sentence, a law intended to regulate hygiene and combat illicit activity like prostitution. But it is an outdated law that is rarely enforced; residents have been openly staying on boats in the Marina for decades, and the Hong Kong government even showcased the idea in a 2010 Trade Development Council video featuring a foreign couple living on a boat.
“It’s a David and Goliath situation,” says Miller. “The plight of nearly 200 families have fallen afoul of legislation that wasn’t designed for them. It wasn’t designed to stop families living on boats; It was designed to stop crime and nefarious activities. You’ve got to look at the legislative intent.”
The New Year deadline looms. Some boats have left for typhoons shelters, others have been sold or shipped to Thailand and Singapore. But even as fencing and barbed wire goes up around the marina entrance, some boats remain, still unsure of what their future holds. Many face financial ruin, and time is running out.
“This is all the money I have for a flat, I put all my money in a boat for myself to stay on,” says Shirley Lam, a 53-year-old single mom and a native of Hong Kong. “I don’t have other options.” Her boat, like dozens of others docked at the club, is draped with a flag reading “Save Our Marina.”
“The way they’ve been treating people here is without respect,” says Lam. “We are not being treated as human beings.”
— With video by Aria Chen / Hong Kong