18 February 2019
Hong Kong needs to address some fundamental issues to resolve its housing problem. Stop-gap measures won't do. Photo: Bloomberg
Hong Kong needs to address some fundamental issues to resolve its housing problem. Stop-gap measures won't do. Photo: Bloomberg

Housing proposals: Adding insult to injury

Given the severity of the housing problem in Hong Kong, everyone agrees that authorities need to keep an open mind and consider whatever solutions possible to help alleviate the crisis.

Thus, it is not surprising to see two new proposals, one involving flat-sharing and the other for construction of “container homes”, become topics of intense discussion this week. 

On Tuesday, a non-government organization announced that it was launching a flat-sharing scheme with official backing to help low-income families get temporary relief as they wait for public housing. 

Under the three-year program, the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS) aims to provide 500 flats that will be shared by at least 1,000 families, offering an affordable option to those who currently live in overpriced sub-divided apartments. 

Meanwhile, in a separate initiative, the HKCSS is also discussing a proposal that would involve the creation of temporary homes by using modified shipping containers.

Under the plan, container boxes will be stacked next to and on top of each other at some yet-to-be-identified sites and converted into housing units that can be offered to those in urgent need of shelter.

Meanwhile, there are reports that the government is also exploring the possibility of putting up new housing through the use of prefabricated containers.

Now, let’s cast a critical lens on these new initiatives. 

At one level, the news is positive as the chatter suggests that authorities have realized that they need to take urgent steps to alleviate the housing shortage and offer relief to low-income groups.

However, we can’t help but raise some key questions: Are authorities moving in the right policy direction? Are they not focusing on stop-gap measures instead of working on long-term solutions?

More importantly, is it right for the government to suggest that people should settle for shared accommodation or container homes, rather than decent homes where one can live with dignity? 

Who wants to live in places that offer no personal privacy, as the shared flats scheme would entail, or reside in refugee-like conditions, a potential scenario at the so-called container homes?  

Rather than trying to improve the living standard of people, the government, by backing the new programs, will be walking in the opposite direction.

Container flats erected with shipping containers are meant for refugees and emergency situations, not for housing locals.  

What the government should really focus upon is building more permanent public housing units in the city, instead of stop-gap and cringe-worthy solutions.

HKCSS, which plays a key role in community housing efforts in the city, said Wednesday that it may provide container homes as soon as 2018, although a lot of technical issues are yet to be resolved.

The announcement came as media reports suggested that the government is also studying the use of converted containers as temporary houses.

From the chatter, it seems evident that authorities are indeed looking at some radical but temporary solutions to meet the housing needs of low-income people.

Setting aside the hype, the flat-sharing scheme would, in effect, amount to legalization of the sub-divided units phenomenon in the city.

As for the container homes proposal, it can be deemed as an insult and a cruel joke on the poor.

Asking people to live in metal boxes stacked on top of each other, with minimum basic facilities, is ridiculous to say the least.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her team seem to want something “special” to surprise the public when Lam delivers her maiden policy address next month.

But if the plan means asking people to live in government-endorsed subdivided flats where residents need to share a toilet, or living in container houses, it is not what the city really needs.

It will be a matter of shame if Hong Kong, one of the richest cities in the world, forces more people to live in cage-like or shared dwellings. 

The government needs to come up with long-term plans to resolve the housing crisis, rather than settle for quick-fix, temporary solutions.  

Boosting public housing supply and adding to the range of such units, and curbs on speculative property purchases by non-locals, are some of the things that must be taken up as policy priorities. 

Efforts should be directed at improving the housing affordability and accessibility, not on initiatives that force the poor into ever-smaller spaces and make them live like refugees in their own city.

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EJ Insight writer

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