22 April 2019
The acute housing shortage in Hong Kong is reflected in the lengthening waiting time for public housing rental units and the worsening affordability of private flats. Photo: HKEJ
The acute housing shortage in Hong Kong is reflected in the lengthening waiting time for public housing rental units and the worsening affordability of private flats. Photo: HKEJ

It’s time to take the bull by the horns over housing

What most Hong Kong people are concerned about is not universal suffrage but rather housing, and the housing problem is twofold.

First, the average waiting time for a public rental housing (PRH) flat is getting longer. And second, private property prices are continuing to skyrocket so much so we are virtually in the midst of the worst housing affordability crisis in decades.

Apart from retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, none of the other three candidates for chief executive has put forward any detailed plan on how to resolve the housing shortage.

Some believe that if former chief secretary Carrie Lam is elected, she is likely to press ahead with her predecessor’s plan to designate some land plots in our country parks to build new homes.

Any initiative to build new homes in our country parks will raise a sensitive issue: why should the government deprive us of our right to enjoy the natural environment while turning a blind eye to the fact that hundreds of thousands of hectares of land in premium locations are being occupied by a privileged few such as members of exclusive country clubs and indigenous clansmen in the New Territories?

Currently, the government has rented out about 430 hectares of land to high-end country clubs on short-term tenancy. To put that in perspective, the total area of these land plots is almost 21.5 times the size of the Victoria Park.

For example, the Fanling golf course alone, which is an exclusive club for members only, occupies 170 hectares of government land.

When asked whether the government would take back these land plots for building PRH flats during a Legco Q&A session in June last year, Secretary for Home Affairs Lau Kong-wah said the administration was reviewing its policy concerning public land held under short-term tenancies and was studying the feasibility of retrieving these plots for building new flats.

He promised the government would submit its final report to Legco by the end of 2016.

However, according to the Home Affairs Bureau, that review is still under way and the administration is unable to tell exactly when that review will be completed.

Although taking back the land occupied by exclusive country clubs will provoke a backlash from among the rich and powerful, from the point of view of the vast majority of the public, it is a feasible option to ease our land shortage and therefore is worth further examination and discussion.

I strongly urge the four candidates to spell out their stance on this issue which concerns basically every average citizen.

On the other hand, under the current Small House Policy, often known as “Ding Huk Policy”, which was introduced by the former British colonial administration in 1972, all male adult heirs of indigenous clans in the New Territories, or so-called “ding”, are entitled to the right (known as “ding’s right”)to buy a piece of land at below market price and build a three-story house of no more than 2,100 square feet.

For years, there have been calls for the abolition of this policy because it is giving preferential treatment to indigenous clans in the New Territories at the expense of the public interest.

However, these calls have largely fallen on deaf ears because the government is reluctant to go head-to-head with powerful vested interests in the New Territories.

Even though under the existing law each “ding” can only build one house during his lifetime and the right itself is not transferable, the truth is many “dings” have taken advantage of the loopholes in the law and sold their rights for big bucks to real estate developers, who then build luxury homes on these plots and put them up for sale.

As a result, the Small House Policy, which was originally intended to provide decent housing for indigenous villagers, has turned into a highly lucrative cash cow for the clansmen and big developers.

Currently, a whopping 1,640 hectares of land is designated for building ding’s houses. To put that in perspective again, that is more than 18 times the size of Ocean Park.

To address growing public grievances against the Small House Policy, the next government that will be assume office on July 1 should consider buying back all the ding’s rights and use the retrieved land to build new homes.

Based on market prices of such rights, it would cost the government about HK$10 billion, which might sound a lot. But consider this: the HK$6,000 cash handouts in 2011 cost the administration HK$40 billion.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 9

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government

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