21 October 2016
Not all country parks are created equal, according to Leung Chun-ying, suggesting some are very much expendable, so developers can move in and build new homes (inset). Photos: HK government, Bloomberg
Not all country parks are created equal, according to Leung Chun-ying, suggesting some are very much expendable, so developers can move in and build new homes (inset). Photos: HK government, Bloomberg

How CY Leung is missing the point in the housing crisis

Leung Chun-ying used an old proverb to make the case for “sacrifice” in order to solve the housing problem.

“You cannot sell the cow and drink the milk,” he said on Tuesday to point out that Hong Kong people must be willing to give up something in return for a solution to the housing crisis.

How we wish the choice was that simple.

We are being asked to agree to the destruction of a big chunk of our green belt so property developers can move in to build new homes in our country parks.

And not to worry, he said, because not all country parks have the same ecological value, suggesting some are expendable.

The problem with this idea is that it is a confused approach to two major policies — housing and environmental protection — like driving a square peg into a round hole.

It does not help one and destroys the other.

The housing crisis is not caused by our environmental policies; it’s caused by a government that lacks sensible ideas and refuses to address the problem at its roots.

There’s enough land in the hands of developers for private housing. They will build luxury residences but not mass housing.

So a problem that is blamed on shortage of housing units is in fact an issue concerning affordability.

Many Hong Kong people simply cannot afford to buy a home.

The housing policy ought to start with that premise and recognize that the problem is caused by factors other than the tight supply of developable land.

Hasn’t this government heard about hot money inflows that have been driving up property prices?

How about land hoarding by developers?

And how about the outdated small-house policy in the New Territories that has left chunks of residential land in the hands of male heirs of rural ancestors only to be sold to developers? 

A recent survey found that home prices are 18 times the average income of a family of four.

Leung must have used this finding to claim that developing our country parks would mean lower construction costs because the government could waive land premiums, thereby enabling developers to sell flats more cheaply.

This argument benefits the developers first and homebuyers last because it brings us back to the affordability issue — there is no guarantee prices will remain affordable if the other factors that are causing them to skyrocket in the first place are not dealt with.

Leung’s development minister, Paul Chan, has said the administration has no plans to build houses in country park areas and that the issue needs further discussion by the public and the government.

Instead, the government is working to rezone 150 sites across Hong Kong for residential use, he said.

How about that for policymaking — a minister appearing to contradict his boss? Or was Leung simply thinking aloud?

We couldn’t help wondering whether this was a calculated political statement because of its focus on “young people”, the same section of the population that has been his most vocal critics.

There was no mention of, say, newlyweds and older families, but Leung left it up to the “community” to “actively consider if they’re willing to make some sacrifices” to tackle the housing woes.

Interestingly, Leung made the remarks after Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first post-colonial leader who famously stumbled over his plan to build 85,000 public housing units, called for subsidized flat purchases to push home ownership rates to 80 percent.

It’s too late for Tung to seize on the plan to boost his approval rating — maybe he doesn’t even need to do it — but not for Leung, who is widely expected to run for reelection in 2017.

But courting young people this way is not going to improve his public image.  

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EJ Insight writer

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