24 October 2018
Housing minister Frank Chan visits a family living in a subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po. Photo: i-Cable
Housing minister Frank Chan visits a family living in a subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po. Photo: i-Cable

Thinking outside the box holds key to resolving housing crisis

Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan on Sunday visited three families living in subdivided flats in Sham Shui Po to gain first-hand knowledge of the appalling conditions inside those residential units.

According to the Society for Community Organization which arranged the visit, it was Secretary Chan himself who had taken the initiative and approached them for the visits because he wanted to find out the true living conditions of the underprivileged in our society.

Chan, a technocrat who had served as director of the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department with zero political experience before he was promoted to his current position, is often considered “the most vulnerable” among bureau chiefs in Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s cabinet because of his total unfamiliarity with transport and housing issues as well as his lack of experience in dealing with the media and the Legislative Council.

His ability to come to grips with the highly contentious and complicated issue of how to resolve the housing shortage, among other urgent tasks, has been open to question since the day he assumed office.

Yet, it appears Secretary Chan is determined to prove doubters wrong with solid action and new ideas.

After the visits, Chan attended an assembly of subdivided flat occupants, during which he said, fighting back tears as he spoke, that he was deeply saddened by the fact that tens of thousands of families in the city have to endure such appalling living conditions on a daily basis.

He then called on all concerned to join forces and embark on a thorough discussion to work out solutions to our housing woes.

At the assembly Chan suggested that non-profit organizations provide affordable, safe, hygienic and not-for-profit subdivided flats for grassroots families as a short-term solution, and he’ll study the feasibility of the government subsidizing the initiative.

Although Chan’s suggestion remains a very rough idea at this stage, at least he was able to come up with something that has a lot more human touch than the indiscriminate ban on subdivided flats in industrial buildings proposed by the Development Bureau earlier on.

Lawmakers swiftly assailed the Development Bureau for its poorly conceived and inhumane proposal, noting that apart from outlawing those flats, it didn’t come up with any plan to rehouse those who would be forced out of their homes.

Secretary Chan’s proposal, on the other hand, may prove a quick and feasible method to at least alleviate the problems of housing shortage and skyrocketing rents that are plaguing low-income families in our city.

Besides, his proposal indicates that he is an official that is not bound by conventional wisdom and is able to think outside the box when it comes to solving problems. And having a housing chief who is not afraid of breaking down bureaucratic barriers is definitely a good thing for society.

In fact, “breaking down bureaucratic barriers” was a pledge that Carrie Lam herself made during the CE election campaign as she vowed to eliminate red tape in the government to improve governance and bring in new ideas.

Unfortunately, Lam, perhaps hamstrung by some man-made obstacles, appears unable to deliver on that promise and remains as rigid as before on certain key issues.

For example, her obstinate refusal to build new homes, not even public rental housing (PRH) flats, in the 87-hectare Lok Ma Chau Loop not only represents a huge waste of land resources but also reflects her deep-rooted and rigid bureaucratic mindset, which will definitely stand in the way of the implementation of her “new deal” if she continues to stick to that kind of mentality and approach.

As Secretary Chan admitted, our city is in the midst of its worst-ever home affordability crisis, with some 300,000 applicants currently on the waiting list for PRH flats, while it is estimated that the government can at best churn out only 280,000 new homes over the next decade.

Worse still, the average waiting time for being allocated a PRH flat has already risen to seven years, and is expected to get even longer in the days ahead.

As the housing crisis has already begun to shred the fabric of our society, there is no time for indecision and half-measures.

And unless our decision-makers can ditch their bureaucratic mindset and start thinking outside the box, those who are desperate for a home will have to struggle for a long time before they can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 10

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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