16 September 2019
The government should be more open-minded about finding new sites for public housing. Photo: Xinhua
The government should be more open-minded about finding new sites for public housing. Photo: Xinhua

Carrie Lam’s urgent task: Restore people’s right to housing

Housing is one of the most pressing social issues facing Hong Kong. Like everyone else, I am looking to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to come up with some new approach to the problem in her upcoming policy address.

Last month I, along with colleagues at the Professional Commons, attended a consultation session on the policy address, during which we urged the chief executive to attend to the issue of our citizens’ “right to housing”.

“Right to housing” isn’t just confined to having a shelter to live in, as many people might think.

According to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “the right to housing” actually refers to “the right to an adequate standard of living” in general, which includes the right to safe and hygienic accommodation, the right to a pleasant neighborhood as well as reasonably convenient access to basic amenities and community facilities.

The fact that there are more than 200,000 people living in subdivided flats of appalling conditions in the city suggests that a lot of our citizens are actually being denied “the right to housing”.

As a responsible government, Carrie Lam and her governing team are obliged to restore such fundamental right to our people.

The government must think outside the box and devise short-term measures to boost our home supply.

As I have suggested over and over again, the government should immediately tap into the vast pool of vacant industrial and school buildings scattered across our city and convert them into temporary homes for low-income families.

The recent development project spearheaded by the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) at the so-called “Sneakers Street” in Mong Kok has renewed public concern about the shifting priorities of the organization, which, in recent years, has become increasingly focused on building lucrative luxury homes rather than developing affordable housing.

There is an urgent need for the government to drastically review the URA’s role to make sure it will become more socially responsible and less profit-oriented.

For example, the administration can mandate the URA to allocate a fixed percentage of its newly built homes for subsidized housing.

The government has launched the “Transitional Community Housing” pilot scheme, under which it would rent out some of its properties to NGOs so that they can convert them into affordable temporary homes for low-income families.

This is a step in the right direction, and I hope the URA can stay the course and turn it into a permanent policy.

In the meantime, I have noticed some issues arising from the chief executive’s proposed housing project that is exclusively available to local first-time homebuyers.

First, the fact that the income limits set for the new project are higher than those of the Home Ownership Scheme (HOS) while its new flats will be sold at a lower price may give rise to unfairness, since this would mean people who have higher incomes are entitled to cheaper housing.

Second, I believe the project should be made available not only to young families, but also to middle-aged, middle-income households who are also suffering from skyrocketing property prices.

Third, given our acute land shortage, it would be very hard for the administration to find extra sites to sustain the project while maintaining the schedule of its existing public housing development plans.

As such, the government should be more open-minded about finding new land, such as tapping into our brownfield sites and undertaking more land reclamation.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 28

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative councilor and head of nursing and health studies in the Open University of Hong Kong