By Minting Ye (Pacific Union International) and Igor Vojnovic (Michigan State University)
In a recent Urban Affairs Review article we explore how women have been impacting the social and physical upgrading of neighborhoods in one of the most competitive property markets in the world. In 2016, the most expensive apartment in Asia sold in Hong Kong for US$117 million, breaking the old record that was set in that city a year earlier. At the other end of the market spectrum, purchasing an entry-level apartment is also costly, with units as small as 163 square feet selling for $500,000. Being one of the most expensive global real estate markets ensures that space is at a premium. Micro-apartments ranging between 28 square feet to 40 square feet—a fraction of the size of a parking spot—are available across the city.
Our recent research focuses on the role of women in the gentrification of Hong Kong neighborhoods between 1986 and 2006. We identify three clusters of 57 tracts that are gentrifying, capturing an area of 146 mi2, some 34.0% of Hong Kong’s territory. Ground surveying and a historical analysis of the neighborhoods were carried out to ensure that capital reinvestment and direct spatial displacement did take place. In these neighborhoods, the increased rate for gross rent, median household income, and median employment income are all greater than Hong Kong’s average. In the three upgrading clusters, there has been an increase of over 100,000 residents employed in finance, insurance, real estate, and business services, and a decrease of over 100,000 residents employed in the traditional sectors, including manufacturing. Many rental units have also been converted to owner-occupied dwellings within these neighborhoods, with owner-occupied housing increasing from 45.5% (1986) to 64.2% (2006).
There is also a clear gender dimension to these gentrification processes. From 1986 to 2006, the number of single women in the gentrifying neighborhoods has increased significantly while the population of their male counterparts has either decreased or increased in a less dramatic way. Between 1986 and 2006, never-married females in the three gentrifying clusters increased by 53.2%, while never-married males increased by only 15.2%. This change is also pronounced in the gender makeup of the divorced and separated. While divorced and separated males in the gentrifying neighborhoods increased about threefold, divorced and separated females increased almost sixfold. As a result, the percentage of female-headed households in these gentrifying clusters has increased dramatically, from 25.8% of the total households in 1986 to 47.1% in 2006.
Two particular aspects of the local culture emerge as critical in defining the imprint of gentrification in Hong Kong. First, socioeconomic and cultural changes have facilitated large decreases in the proportion of women getting married, a pattern evident since 1981. Both women and men have been delaying marriage, contributing to the number of the never-married, i.e. singles. With major changes in attitudes toward education, work, marriage, and family, the number of single women in Hong Kong will likely continue to increase. This is also a pattern seen across urban Southeast Asia and in widely dissimilar cultural contexts.
While the role of women has varied within and between neighborhoods, it becomes evident that not only are single women emerging as a growing and critical aspect of Hong Kong’s economy, they are also a driving force shaping housing market pressures and local (re)development. Changes in values relating to marriage and family life have not only altered Hong Kong’s socio-demographic composition, but they have produced a ripple effect throughout the economy. In addition, with the number of single women in Hong Kong on the rise, their lifestyle is becoming increasingly accepted culturally. On mainland China, for instance, never-married women are also increasing, but unmarried females over the age of 27 are called sheng nu, a derogatory phrase meaning ‘leftover women.’ In contrast, such women are commonly referred to as xing nu in Hong Kong, a more neutral term meaning ‘blooming women.’
Southeast Asia more broadly faces a growing proportion of never-married men and women. Thus, the impact of single women on the demand for housing, and the resulting urban redevelopment pressures, are likely more widely evident across Southeast Asian cities. In addition, with the increasing socioeconomic status of women, coupled with ongoing gender inequities and class conflicts, including in urban redevelopment processes, it could be assumed that while they take on unique imprints within specific cities—and between and within their neighborhoods—these are likely gender and class struggles being experienced more ubiquitously across urban Southeast Asia.
The second dimension in defining the imprint of local gentrification in Hong Kong is state intervention. In Hong Kong, the state maintains a much more expanded role in urban (re)development and housing provision, particularly when compared to the North American context. For instance, about 50% of Hong Kong dwellings consisted of public housing units in 2006. The more active public housing program has defined the bottom of Hong Kong’s socio-demographic imprint, even in the gentrifying neighborhoods—a condition absent in more entrenched neo-liberal states. Hong Kong captures a particularly unique imprint of gentrification—a U-shaped, or bimodal, sociodemographic composition that is evident among women—across its upgrading neighborhoods. The lowest-income group continues to maintain a presence even in high-end exclusive, gentrifying neighborhoods because of public housing.
Reflecting more broadly on housing affordability in global cities, Hong Kong shows that public housing diminishes the negative detrimental impacts of gentrification and displacement. Public housing allows even the poorest to live in the most expensive neighborhoods, illustrating the active role for progressive government in quelling gentrification and, more particularly, displacement pressures. However, even in Hong Kong, with a large-scale public housing provision, there are large numbers of lower-income groups, and especially the core poor, who continue to have difficulty accessing adequate housing following displacement.
With a large-scale public housing provision, redevelopment within the gentrifying neighborhoods has facilitated improved access to housing even among the lowest-income group— the bottom 20%—as reflected by the 42% increase in this population segment within Hong Kong’s upgrading neighborhoods. However, accompanying the increase in the lowest-income sub-group, the only socioeconomic segment with a more pronounced impact on Hong Kong’s gentrifying landscape is found among the wealthy, as evident in a 46% population increase among the top 20% of income earners within these neighborhoods. Critically relevant to this research, in Hong Kong’s gentrifying neighborhoods, the bi-modal split evident at the highest- and lowest-incomes is disproportionately dominated by women. More generally, however, it becomes evident that women have been a disproportionately dominant presence in the upgrading of the local housing market, fundamentally shaping Hong Kong’s landscape of gentrification into the 21st century.
Minting Ye is a senior research analyst at Pacific Union International. She received her PhD from the Department of Geography at Michigan State University. Her main research areas are in urban and regional development, land use, and urban environmental planning. She has published a dozen articles, including in journals such as Urban Affairs Review, Journal of Urban Affairs, Urban Geography, Economic Development, American Review of Public Administration, International Journal of Remote Sensing, and Environmental Monitoring and Assessment.
Igor Vojnovic is professor in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences at Michigan State University, with cross-appointments in the School of Planning, Design, and Construction and the Global Urban Studies Program. His main area of research focuses on urban (re)development processes and the study of resulting social and physical impacts. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Urban Affairs.