Hong Kong is in a long race to solve its housing woes, as calls mount for the construction of public housing units to be stepped up. Gu Mengyan reports from Hong Kong.
The scramble by Hong Kong residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to qualify for a lucky draw with a top prize of a HK$10 million (US$1.3 million) luxury apartment highlights the severity of the city’s housing problems and the long waiting time for public housing.
Hong Kong families, on average, had to wait for 5.8 years for a public housing unit in the first quarter of this year — the longest since 1999 — according to the Hong Kong Housing Authority’s latest statistics, released in mid-May.
The financial hub’s property tycoons rose to the occasion and offered a host of incentives for vaccinated residents, including lucky draws that could enable them to win a luxury apartment, in response to Hong Kong authorities’ call to boost the local vaccination rate.
The Housing Authority said that only 11,261 public housing apartments were built in 2020 — a nine-year low. The figure still fell short of the government’s estimate in September that 13,000 apartments would be completed, indicating that those in the line for public housing may have to wait even longer.
“I now expect the average waiting period to exceed six years. I also doubt the government’s projections for the number of public housing flats to be built in future. It should explain the disparity and try every means to speed up construction,” said Wilson Or Chong-shing, a lawmaker from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.
Grassroots families on the waiting list are among the hardest hit as many of them have been languishing in subdivided apartments of poor hygiene, he said.
“The top priority now is to regulate subdivided housing through legislation and subsidize disadvantaged households. The government should also step up building 15,000 transitional flats as planned for these families.”
The government said a draft bill on tenancy control of subdivided units will be discussed at the Legislative Council on Wednesday, and that the government has secured the land to construct the 15,000 units; more than half of the land was offered by private developers.
Special Administrative Region authorities announced a three-year pilot program on June 17 that offers cash subsidies to public-housing applicants who have been on the waiting list for three years or above. Up to HK$3,900 will be given to eligible applicants who are not living in public housing apartments and are not receiving Comprehensive Social Security Assistance, depending on the size of the family. More than 90,000 families are expected to benefit from the program.
Ryan Ip Man-ki, head of land and housing research at Our Hong Kong Foundation, said that besides acute land shortage, complex red tape has hindered the construction of public housing estates, suggesting that a full disclosure of the timeline and progress of housing projects should be made for the public to track and monitor them.
He advised authorities to reintroduce a program that would allow private developers to take part in public housing construction and enhance efficiency.
Secretary for Development Michael Wong Wai-lun had earlier said it will now take at least 10 years — from consultations to construction — to build a public housing estate on undeveloped land, compared with more than 15 years in the past.
This undated photo shows a view of residential buildings in Hong Kong. (PHOTO / INFORMATION SERVICES DEPARTMENT, HKSAR GOVT)
According to Our Hong Kong Foundation, construction work for up to 75 percent of public housing units built between 2015 and 2020 had to be delayed. Over the next four years, 21,800 units on average are due to be completed — still nearly 30 percent short of the government’s target.
In the latest Long Term Housing Strategy report, the government said it plans to build 316,000 public housing apartments over the next decade, with two-thirds of them to be completed after 2026.
Former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying said in May that Hong Kong’s civil servants lack a sense of urgency in dealing with housing-related projects, alleging it could easily take weeks for a document to be circulated and signed by the necessary departments.
“We have failed to adopt a ‘do it or die’ attitude. We really need to race against time to solve Hong Kong’s housing problem … and we must provide public housing as early as possible for those still living in subdivided flats,” said Leung, who is now a vice-chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the country’s top political advisory body.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has acknowledged the deficiency in administrative and regulatory procedures, adding that civil servants are willing to accept criticism. “But every administration has its own strategy in terms of land supply,” she said.
Leung also called for the revival of a plan to develop country parks into public housing estates — an idea proposed near the end of his tenure as chief executive but later shelved by the current administration.
He suggested that up to 25,000 public housing units could be built on the fringes of Tai Lam Country Park in the northwestern New Territories, covering 70 hectares, or less than 0.2 percent of the total area of the city’s country parks.
The new homes could be sold at HK$6,000 per square foot, he said, adding that authorities should consider developing construction plans and inviting applications from residents simultaneously to expedite the process.
“We believe the focus of our housing policy should be to find more land in the long run, instead of just changing the use of land,” said Lam, adding that turning country parks into housing estates is very likely to spark discontent and opposition among affected neighborhoods.
“Different housing policies will have different outcomes. You cannot judge (the effects) simply by speed. The effects of land policies are not immediate in most cases. If you only evaluate the figures at a certain point, the conclusion you come to could be biased,” she argued.
Leung said, “I’m not against other plans to increase land supply, but I hope my suggestions won’t be ignored. We need to give Hong Kong people, especially young families, the hope of owning a flat.”
Wong, the development chief, said developing country parks is not an immediate option, noting that the plan had “failed to get majority support” from the public in 2018. However, the government could reconsider it “at an appropriate time”, he added.
He estimated the government could recover 100 hectares of land annually in the next five years, compared with 4 hectares each year from 2014 to 2019.
The Development Bureau said in May that three private parcels of land in the New Territories, covering a total of 12,300 square meters, would be resumed under the Lands Resumption Ordinance to build 1,600 subsidized apartments.
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