22 February 2019
Demand for public housing continues to soar, while supply remains largely the same. Photo: HKEJ
Demand for public housing continues to soar, while supply remains largely the same. Photo: HKEJ

Govt trying to fool us on long wait for public housing

Much to the dismay of tens of thousands of public rental housing (PRH) applicants, the Hong Kong Housing Authority (HKHA) has announced that the average waiting time for an applicant to be allocated a PRH flat has risen from three years to 4.5 years.

Worse still, Stanley Wong Yuen-fai, chairman of the Subsidized Housing Committee of the Housing Authority, said the long wait for PRH flats is unlikely to see any improvement until at least 2020, implying that the already unacceptable waiting time of 4.5 years could further deteriorate over the next four years.

Back in 2014 the Transport and Housing Bureau and the Housing Authority pledged to do their best to keep the maximum waiting time for PRH applicants under three years, while admitting that the actual waiting time could temporarily “deviate” from that promise over the next few years.

All along the government was lying through its teeth and trying to fool the public into believing that the prolonged waiting time was only temporary, when in fact it is not. Rather, it is likely to become the new norm.

In fact, when the government says the situation will improve in 2020, it probably means that the average waiting time will be reduced from that of 2019, but will not necessarily be down to three years or below.

In other words, it is almost certain that PRH applicants will be subject to prolonged waits indefinitely, and that the “maximum three years of waiting time” has now become a mere policy goal but not a promise anymore.

I am hardly exaggerating when I say the average waiting time for PRH applicants is unlikely to go back to three years or below in the foreseeable future.

That’s because it has become increasingly clear that the HKHA simply can’t come up with any new measure to make that happen.

In fact, from 2016/17 to 2020/2021, the number of PRH flats due to be completed will remain largely the same as before that period of time, i.e., 71,100 in total, or an average of 14,200 every year.

With demand continuing to soar and supply staying put, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the average waiting time for getting allocated a PRH flat is bound to get longer and longer.

To make matters worse, the so-called “average waiting time” is indeed not entirely accurate, if not totally misleading.

That’s because the waiting times for different groups of applicants often vary a lot, thereby skewing the final figures.

For example, the median waiting time for a family of four is often much longer than that for single elderly applicants, mainly because the HKHA has been giving priority to the construction of small one-bedroom units over large two or three-bedroom units over the years.

As a result, the median waiting time for four-person families is often at least twice as much as that for single elderly applicants.

Last year, there were 25,600 applications for PRH flats filed by four-person families.

Among them, 55.9 percent had already waited for more than three years, compared with just 32.9 percent in other applicant groups.

It is not uncommon for a family of four to wait seven to eight years before they are allocated a two-bedroom flat, only that their predicament has largely gone under the public radar.

And the reason why the HKHA is building far more one-bedroom units than larger units and giving priority to single elderly applicants is not only because small flats are easier to build, but also because by housing more single elderly applicants faster, the government can drive down the overall average waiting time for PRH applicants.

By pulling this simple trick, the administration can then create the impression that it is able to keep the average waiting time for all applicants well below three years, when in fact it is not.

If anything, the HKHA is favoring one group of applicants at the expense of others in order to turn out impressive figures and show the public that it is doing a good job.

I also notice that in every HKHA annual analysis report over the past five years, there was always a final chapter detailing “the way forward” for our public housing scheme.

But in the report this year, that chapter has been omitted. Does that mean there is no longer any way forward for our public housing policy?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 7.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version中文版]

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Director of the Society for Community Organization

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