The government, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS), is planning to launch the first ever “container homes” program as a short-term solution to our housing shortage.
Under the program, container boxes will be converted into small flats and be erected in designated areas, with a view to providing temporary housing for low-income families and public rental housing flat applicants who can’t afford the skyrocketing rent in the private market.
These proposed temporary shelters are reminiscent of the “temporary housing areas” (THA) that were once scattered across our city until 2001, when the last remaining one of them was demolished.
Back in those days, THAs, which were intended as temporary homes for the underprivileged and those who lost their homes to natural disasters, were notorious for their appalling living conditions and poor hygiene.
Given that, there is a view that reintroducing temporary housing like container homes represents a complete regression in our government’s housing policy.
However, we don’t agree with such notion. As long as these container homes aren’t infested with rats, won’t get swamped during rainy seasons or toppled by typhoons, and have decent facilities such as toilets and kitchens for every household, we believe they may prove a short-term but viable solution to our current housing problem, and therefore the initiative is worth trying.
HKCSS chief executive Chua Hoi-wai said the social service group sent staff to the Netherlands to understand the way the local authorities manage these homes in order to draw some useful insights into how Hong Kong can borrow the idea.
He also revealed that several local developers have agreed to rent out some of their vacant land lots for a symbolic HK$1 to the HKCSS for a few years on which it can erect container homes.
Chua added that the first batch of container homes would be available as early as next year once they have received the green light from the government.
In the meantime, Secretary for Development Michael Wong Wai-lun has said that the government is receptive to any new idea on how to ease the housing shortage, and therefore all options, including container homes, are on the table.
However, the fact that some real estate developers are eager to rent out their land almost for free would inevitably raise suspicions: why would these big land developers which are notoriously thirsty for profits become suddenly so generous?
In fact the answer is simple: they have obviously done the math and realized that their short-term generosity would bring them huge benefits in the long run.
Here is the rationale behind their generosity: sites developers would rent out are typically located in remote areas and are mostly undeveloped that lack all the basic amenities and infrastructure such as power grid, fresh water supply network and roads. And these land plots are going to be idle for sometime before there are specific development plans for them.
By renting these idle land lots on short term tenancy to the administration, big developers cannot only boost their own company image, but can also, above all, let the government build all the basic infrastructure on these land sites for free, thereby setting the scene for launching lucrative private home projects on these land lots in the future.
In other words, it is indeed a win-win situation for both developers and the government: by renting out the vacant land, big developers can let the government do the job of making these land lots ready for future luxury home projects, while the government can have access to vacant land immediately for the container homes program.
However, while we applaud the government’s outside-the-box approach to resolving our housing shortage, we must also point out that both the container home program and the so-called legal sub-divided flat project that is now under way can at best provide a quick-fix, and are by no means a long-term answer to the problem.
The government must still step up its efforts to find new land and increase the supply of PRH flats in the long run. In particular, the administration must avoid having its priorities mixed up by slowing down the construction of PRH flats while embarking on the container home program.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 22
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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