HONG KONG: He was visiting the homes of the underprivileged when he met a mother and son living in a unit in a building waiting to be redeveloped.
“The son was doing his homework, and I noticed that behind him, water was dripping. It had a foul smell, like sewage … The mother was mopping the floor while chatting with me,” recalls Ricky Yu. “The situation was unbelievable.”
It is the kind of situation, however, that is familiar to many of Hong Kong’s low-income families living in squatter housing or in rundown subdivided flats, which typically are about 100 square feet and rented out for nearly HK$5,000 (S$867). Their only other choice is to apply for the government’s public housing units, but the supply — despite an increase — cannot keep up with demand.
As the housing and poverty issues hit home for Yu, a novel solution was about to take shape, born out of his belief that “the government isn’t omnipotent” and that “people themselves can work out a long-term, complementary solution”.
So in 2010, he quit his corporate job and founded Light Be, a social enterprise providing alternative housing solutions for low-income families by tapping a spirit of common goodness.
Its Light Home tenancy model is this: Landlords rent their properties to vulnerable families at below market rate for a maximum of three years — in the world’s most expensive housing market.
This housing solution is not an end in itself. Yu means it to give the tenants time to put their lives back in order by, for example, looking for stable employment, so that they can climb out of poverty.
“We hope that through Light Be, we can give them the incentive to upgrade themselves,” says the 51-year-old.
It has not been easy, but his model has worked: Hundreds of families have not only become less dependent on welfare, but have also thrived on developing themselves.
He is one of CNA’s Champions for Change, a series marking the channel’s 20th anniversary this year by celebrating 20 individuals whose imagination, talents and efforts have uplifted communities across Asia.
INSPIRED BY A NOBEL LAUREATE
Before he started his social housing network, Yu was facing “a midlife crisis”. He was a top executive of a multinational, but was wondering what else he was “chasing after”, apart from making money for his bosses and himself.
He also felt that the stress of finding affordable housing was increasing. “Many Hong Kong people have prioritised their housing needs over their own development. This isn’t ideal,” he says.
“Personal development should take priority, and housing, the means to an end.”
And having come from an underprivileged family, he knew what it was like to be poor. “Even though you don’t know these people, you’re connected in a way. We’re all Hong Kong people. I can empathise with them,” he relates.
He had three choices, he reckoned, to resolve these issues: Donate periodically to non-governmental organisations; get involved in politics; or create his own housing system, a choice inspired by Nobel laureate and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus.