HK leader Carrie Lam has plans to fix public housing shortage, but will they work?

30-Nov-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:50 AM Print This Post

When Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced in her policy speech on Wednesday that enough land had been found to tackle the public housing shortage for the next decade, she lauded it as an achievement, saying the government’s efforts had started to pay off.

Elaborating on the plan on Thursday, development minister Michael Wong Wai-lun sounded equally optimistic.

Work continues on a construction site for public housing on Lantau Island. Photo: Sam Tsang

Work continues on a construction site for public housing on Lantau Island. Photo: Sam Tsang

“Coming up will be land administration procedures, of which we have a lot of experience, and construction itself. We are very confident over the control of the construction time. We don’t foresee any substantial difficulty in those stages,” he said, adding that the initial planning process had already been completed.

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But how much is this 10-year initiative indicative of Lam’s efforts to tackle the shortage of affordable homes which Beijing called a “deep-seated” problem and a cause of last year’s social unrest and how will the overall housing measures in this year’s policy address help solve the problems?

The initiative, which covers 330 hectares of land that could yield 316,000 public housing flats, still faces uncertainties, although Wong said most of the sites would be available for new residents as early as the next three to four years. These include Kai Tak, a former quarry at Anderson Road in Kowloon, an extension of Tung Chung new town, two proposed new towns in the New Territories, and part of an exclusive golf course in Fanling.

Despite the clear timetable, critics warned that local objections, technical difficulties and other factors could cause delays.

For example, for the proposed new town in Kwu Tung North, about 1,000 households would have to be displaced, according to Land Justice League activist Ng Cheuk-hang.

“The villagers have resisted for many years,” he said. “Some will accept compensation for eviction but not everyone likes the arrangement. The government has not given the villagers a way to maintain their rural lifestyle. They can’t just rebuild their village somewhere else.”

A former member of the defunct task force on land supply also warned that there could be other factors, citing the example of Wang Chau, where a sizable public housing programme was delayed, with officials denying reports they bowed to pressure from powerful rural landlords.

“What officials said about completing the planning process is only the beginning. There are often unforeseeable factors in the implementation afterwards,” said the adviser, who declined to be named.

Among the sites earmarked for the next 10 years, are eight brownfield areas in the New Territories occupied by warehouses for industrial, storage and logistics uses, which would not be available for at least six years.

But think-tank Our Hong Kong Foundation earlier pointed out the sites were too small and scattered, and ownership fragmented, which would make it hard to carry out land resumption and resettlement.

In Hong Kong, the world’s most expensive property market, the average waiting time for public rental housing has climbed to 5.6 years, and the number of family and single elderly applicants has grown to 156,400.

Private housing has also remained unaffordable, with mortgage payments taking up 77 per cent of the average median income of Hong Kong people, according to the latest government data.

While officials pledged more public housing over the medium term, Chan Kim-ching, founder of concern group Liber Research Community, noted that waiting times would not be cut soon.

There would only be 6,000 public housing flats available next year, short of the annual target of 30,100, he said.

In a bid to help those waiting for public flats, Lam’s administration has come up with a policy of using temporarily available land or vacant premises as “transitional housing”.

A new initiative announced on Wednesday would see non-governmental organisations renting underused hotels or guest houses, which have been hard hit by the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic, for such transitional homes. Officials said the scheme could save businesses from closing down while helping public housing applicants, with sources from the Community Care Fund supported by public money and private donations.

So far, some hotels and guest houses in Tsim Sha Tsui have expressed interest, according to lawmaker Vincent Cheng Wing-shun who joined a meeting on Thursday. While he said the units could fit single people or two-member families due to their small size, Cheng pointed out that cooking could be a concern, as some rooms did not have proper kitchens.

“Tenants can accept that they either buy takeaway or eat out. Some hostels have small pantries for simple meals, but we will need to further study if this is feasible.”

How the scheme will be received remains to be seen, as analysts have said that well-established hotels might not be interested, while small, cheap guest houses in rundown buildings may not be a suitable living environment.

Another new initiative, an HK$8 billion cash subsidy scheme for those waiting for public housing for more than three years, has also been controversial, with critics arguing that the allowance could end up in landlords’ pockets when there is no rent control.

The adviser questioned whether it would be a fair policy, as people did not have their income vetted until they were close to receiving an offer of a public flat. “The cash subsidy may not go to everyone in need,” he said.

He added that rental and tenancy control, which the government was studying, had been dismissed by different advisory bodies in past years as ineffective.

“But the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic has led to ad hoc plans and the government handing out cash in different schemes, like this one for housing,” he said. “If the details are not properly worked out, I am afraid they could end up being counterproductive.”



Category: Hong Kong

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