Land and housing policies are of great importance to Hong Kong people, and in her policy address this year, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor pledged to find more land to boost the government’s land reserves in order to meet the growing demand for housing.
In general, I agree with the government’s stance on the land supply issue.
And in my opinion, the most direct and cost-effective way of finding land for housing is to prioritize the development of brownfield sites, which are mainly concentrated in the northern and northwestern parts of the New Territories.
These sites are mostly relatively flat and easily accessible sites. This means the cost of developing these sites is relatively low, thereby ensuring the effective use of our land resources and alleviating pollution in rural areas.
According to the preliminary findings of the public consultation carried out by the Task Force on Land Supply, the public is not opposed to the development of brownfield sites.
I sincerely hope that the government will consider the recommendations put forward by the Task Force with an open mind and unlock the potential of Hong Kong’s brownfield sites as soon as possible.
Apart from medium- and long-term initiatives to find new land for housing, our citizens need short-term measures that can meet their immediate demand for decent and affordable homes.
Since 2013, I have been calling on the government to redevelop homes under the Civil Servants’ Co-operative Building Society (CBS) scheme that are over 50 years old as part of efforts to boost housing supply in the short run.
In 2016, the government launched the Pilot Scheme for Redevelopment of Civil Servants’ Co-operative Building Societies. But the initiative only had limited appeal to owners of these flats and thus achieved very little success.
Therefore, I welcome the chief executive’s decision to assign the task of rebuilding empty CBS flats to the Urban Renewal Authority (URA).
I suggest that the URA be especially attentive to the issue of paying compensation to CBS flat owners. They must be able to sell their properties at a reasonable price and then use the money to buy homes of a similar size in the same district.
In the policy address, the chief executive also proposed to reactivate the plan to revitalize industrial buildings. The new scheme will involve the wholesale conversion of industrial buildings into transitional housing units.
I am glad to learn that the Lands Department is going to waive fees for the wholesale conversion of those industrial buildings, and encourage more industrial building owners to collaborate with non-governmental institutions in converting their properties into temporary homes for grassroots families.
Even though the living conditions in these transitional homes might not be very satisfactory, they are at least better and safer than those ridiculously small and run-down subdivided flats currently available on the private rental market, many of which don’t even meet the most basic fire safety standards.
However, while I am in favor of the idea of converting designated industrial buildings into temporary homes, it is equally important for the government to provide basic transport facilities near these premises so as to enhance their accessibility and enable tenants to commute to school or work more easily.
Also, I would like to suggest that the authorities include binding terms on the minimum size of these transitional flats and put a cap on their rents in the agreements converting these buildings into homes.
Meanwhile, figures provided by the Development Bureau show that as of January 2018, a total of 183 vacant school lots have been confirmed for long-term development purposes.
Among them, 46 lots have been designated as “government, institution or community” sites.
The government can prioritize the conversion of these vacant school premises into transitional homes.
The latest policy address has devoted quite a lot of pages to plans for the development of public and subsidized housing, but there is little mention of the private property market.
It didn’t even touch on the issue of the mounting financial stress of middle-class families who have to pay huge home mortgages and those who are constantly at the receiving end of rent hikes.
Over the years, there have been mounting calls for the government to re-introduce rent control, only to be rejected in view of the controversial nature of the issue and the lack of public consensus.
Rent levels in the private property market have been skyrocketing in recent years. I have suggested many times the introduction of a tax allowance for rents in order to ease the financial pressure on middle- to lower-income families.
The administration should also re-study the various suggestions to alleviate the housing woes of those in the so-called sandwich class in the city.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 31
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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