One misconception about Hong Kong’s housing conundrum is that the city lacks land. That is not the case given the size of the territory: 1,105 square kilometers.
The key to understanding the crisis is the ineffective use of land. Hong Kong’s developed area is just one quarter of its total landmass.
The Hong Kong Economic Journal, along with four local think tanks – Our Hong Kong Foundation, SD Advocates, Dashun Foundation and Hong Kong Seek Road – jointly organized a symposium on land use at the end of last month, with the view of gathering fresh, collective thinking to tackle the perennial challenge.
Our Hong Kong Foundation, founded by former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, identified a host of potential sites for reclamation to create 3,490 hectares of land in a research paper released earlier this year.
The list includes a massive 2,200-hectare artificial island off the south of Cheung Chau to relocate the Kwai Chung container terminus as well as logistics facilities that currently occupy large swaths of brownfield sites in northern New Territories.
The idea is to vacate and rezone these downtown or near-downtown disposable plots, totaling 940 hectares with existing, well-rounded infrastructure, for housing.
Similarly, prisons, detention centers, refuse transfer stations and other structures can be built on a 200-hectare reclaimed area on Po Toi Island to tap precious urban land.
Other areas recommended for reclamation include 500 hectares on Lamma Island, 390 hectares in Tuen Mun and 200 hectares in Tseung Kwan O.
Populous new towns and conurbations in Sha Tin, Tuen Mun, Tai Po, Tsuen Wan and Tseung Kwan O were largely built from the sea. About 26 percent of the city’s developed area, or 7,000 hectares in total, is made through reclamation, housing 27 percent of the population and 70 percent of the total office and commercial spaces.
But reclamation ground to a complete halt by the turn of the new millennium. Reclamation projects in Kowloon Bay and Kennedy Town were all discontinued.
Since the implementation of the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance in 1997, not a single new town has been built – even in the face of deteriorating housing estates and runaway home prices.
Stephen Wong, chief policy analyst at the foundation, told the seminar that Hong Kong has to come up with no less than 9,350 hectares of new land to accommodate demand, both for housing and economic development, in the next 30 years.
“Society really has to focus on the bigger picture of how to create this much land, but what is frustrating is that even a 30-hectare land production initiative in northern New Territories is now hobbled by controversies and objections,” Wong said.
In housing alone, even if the local population change remains the same in the coming decades, Hong Kong will still have to expand its total land supply for housing by 60 percent to catch up with Singaporeans, who have an average per capita living space of 270 square feet, he said. Hong Kong’s corresponding figure stands at a dismal 170 sq. ft.
Farmland, slopes and plot ratio
Former planning director and SD Advocates chairman Peter Pun recommends a “land swap” approach to rezone agricultural land for housing and relocate farms and fish ponds to the new plots to be created on the periphery of country parks originally earmarked by the authorities for development.
Most of these vacant farmlands lie on urban fringes or scattered around new towns, giving future estates to be built there easy access to existing infrastructure.
Pun also urges the government to tap two specific fronts for land supply: slopes and Kowloon City.
Suitable slopes across the territory should be considered for housing, Pun said, noting that modern construction techniques have surmounted challenges and constraints of building on uneven sites.
He said he couldn’t understand why big slopes are usually left out from the authorities’ hunt for land, when in the past many buildings were erected on steep hillsides, like the campus of the University of Hong Kong, which was built on a chain of slopes above Sai Wan.
Pun also said development restrictions, in particular height limit and plot ratio, should have been loosened for Kowloon City after the 1998 decommission of Kai Tak airport, but officials cited overpopulation and infrastructure constraints for not doing so.
Pun cited a plethora of bans and red tape that are contributing to the land crunch, including conservation, environmental protection, land rights, rezoning, and other cumbersome and outdated policy restraints.
Nor do officials have the political grit to plough ahead with effective modes to expedite land and home production, such as public-private partnership that used to bring key projects into fruition such as Whampoa Gardens in Hung Hom and South Horizons in Ap Lei Chau.
In today’s politically charged atmosphere, however, such a partnership may only fuel suspicions of politicians colluding with business tycoons.
Former legislator Tony Tse, who represented the architectural, surveying, planning and landscape constituency, suggested that rezoning procedures be simplified to unlock the potential of huge agricultural land. According to data from the Food and Health Bureau, 3,794 hectares, or 85 percent of the 4,523 hectares of agricultural land, remained fallow or derelict as of 2013.
Some 58,000 homes with a decent size of 600 square feet could be built with a plot ratio of 3.5, if 10 percent of the 1,000 agricultural sites owned by major developers can be rezoned for immediate development. That amount is three times the government’s targeted annual private home supply.
Interim homes in industrial blocks
Tse also called on the government to provide incentives, like premium waivers, to encourage owners of underused industrial buildings to renovate, redevelop or rent out their properties for temporary housing.
That proposal was echoed by Fred Li, another former legislator attending the forum. Li, also an ex-member of the Housing Authority, supported the revival of the interim housing scheme to retrofit 1,000 industrial and factory buildings of single ownership to provide temporary flats for those yet to be allocated public housing homes.
Li also said the government should consider doling out rent allowances to those still on the public housing waiting list, when the average waiting time is now almost five years.
This article is excerpted from columns that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 31.
Translation by Frank Chen
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