23 February 2019
A serious shortage of public columbaria is pushing up the prices of private niches to ridiculous levels. Photo: RTHK
A serious shortage of public columbaria is pushing up the prices of private niches to ridiculous levels. Photo: RTHK

HK home shortage woes: Same for both the living and the dead

The Ching Ming festival is always a sad day because it reminds us of our deceased loved ones. However, for people who can’t afford a niche for their late parents or grandparents in a private columbarium and who are still waiting to be allocated one in a public columbarium, the day may even prove sadder.

It is because the festival always serves as a painful reminder of the serious shortage of public columbaria in Hong Kong for decades.

And for many of those who are still on the never-ending waiting list for a final resting place for their loved ones, they simply can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.

One might still remember that in 2010, the government vowed to build 900,000 new niches in public columbaria over the next decade, so that there would be at least one columbarium in every district.

But seven years on, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has only completed two new public columbaria in Diamond Hill and Cheung Chau, providing a mere 2,500 new niches, which only account for 0.5 percent of the initial goal of 900,000 units. As we can see, the extent to which the government is falling behind schedule in its plan is staggering.

And it is exactly our deteriorating shortage of burial places that has given rise to the skyrocketing prices of niches in private columbaria in recent years. For example, according to information available on the internet, a “king-size” niche that can store three urns containing the ashes of the dead in a luxurious private columbarium in Shatin goes for a whopping HK$3.48 million, while a standard-sized niche in the same columbarium costs as much as HK$1.15 million.

As far as the most basic and “affordable” niches in private columbaria are concerned, the vast majority of them cost an average HK$200,000 to HK$300,000 each. And despite their absurd prices they remain hotly sought-after and are hard to come by.

In other words, not only the living, but also the dead are on the receiving end of the serious home shortage.

And the fact that running private columbaria has proven a highly lucrative business has given rise to a lot of unlicensed private columbaria scattered across Hong Kong, many of which are embedded in industrial or even residential buildings in old urban areas.

In order to stem the tide, the government has proposed to tighten regulation on private columbaria by legislating against unlicensed columbaria that operate in multi-story buildings. The proposed bill is set to resume second-reading in Legco next Wednesday.

However, the Private Columbaria Bill could turn out to be a double-edged sword. It is because once passed and enforced, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 existing private niches will become illegal and be ordered to shut down. The problem is, the government simply doesn’t have any contingency plan to house these “homeless dead”, and nobody knows where they are going to end up after being “evicted”.

As many in the funeral business have pointed out, the government should be held accountable for our existing shortage of public columbaria. Given our city’s highly steady and predictable mortality rate (i.e. about 40,000 deaths per year), there should be plenty of time and room for the administration to plan ahead when it comes to building new public columbaria.

Unfortunately, it appears our government hasn’t been doing its job properly, and as a result, the gap between the supply and demand for public niches has continued to widen over the past decade.

It is ridiculous and mind-boggling that given our average 40,000 deaths every year, the administration has remained so laid-back that it has only managed to turn out about 300 new public niches annually over the past seven years.

As Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam has vowed to increase home supply after July 1, perhaps she should aim her new policy initiatives on housing not only at the living, but also at the dead.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 6

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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