Time for new thinking on public rental housing

November 09, 2017 08:00
Hong Kong already has almost 770,000 PRH units which house over two million people. Another 278,000 people are waiting in line for PRH flats. Photo: HKEJ

Was it a slip of the tongue or a Freudian slip? Only Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor knows. But either way, I am flabbergasted by the public uproar over her remark during a media interview that public rental housing (PRH) could be capped at 800,000 units.

She didn’t put a definitive tone nor expand on what she said. To me, it sounded more like a raw idea going through her head. But politicians, the media, and grassroots organizations treated her off-the-cuff remark as if it was government policy set in stone. There was such fire and fury, including from the establishment camp, that she finally had to apologize.

Why is it so wrong to ponder the idea of a limit on PRH units? To be a bold leader, you must dare push the frontiers of new thinking. That’s what Lam was doing. By attacking her, are her critics saying a large part of our population should forever be condemned to live in PRH and the government should therefore build a never-ending supply of such units? If yes, then they need to either refresh their memories or research why we have PRH to begin with.

Hong Kong’s PRH dates back to 1954 when a disastrous fire ravaged a Shek Kip Mei shanty-town, leaving over 50,000 people homeless, most of them refugees from mainland China. The government of the day kick-started a public housing program for poor and homeless families. That evolved over time to include subsidized homes for sale to low-income families.

When the late Ronald Reagan ran against the then incumbent US President Jimmy Carter in 1980 he asked voters if they were better off than they were four years ago when Carter became president. His slogan was intended to send a message to Americans that governments had a duty to improve the lives of the people. The slogan not only helped him win the election, it became an iconic quote that many politicians use to this day.

Indefinitely building PRH units is a defeatist policy that in effect means the government acknowledges the lives of a large part of the population will never improve, those now living in PRH units can never afford to move out, and a continuous supply of units will be needed to cater for current and future families forever trapped in poverty. An indefinite program of PRH units therefore represents a failure of government policy, not a success.

Hong Kong already has almost 770,000 PRH units which house over two million people. Another 278,000 people are waiting in line for PRH units. They face a wait of nearly five years. Instead of attacking Lam for tossing around the idea of putting a limit on PRH units, her critics should be asking why in super-rich Hong Kong over 30 percent of its 7.3 million-strong population earn so little income that they must rely on cheap government rental housing, with another 278,000 in the queue.

This dire situation is not of Lam’s making. Both the colonial and post-reunification governments must share blame for our disgraceful housing situation. A perennial land shortage, a property sector controlled by a handful of developers, and an influx of foreign money, including from the mainland, into our housing market have combined to drive home prices beyond the reach of ordinary Hong Kong people.

We are now the world’s most expensive city for housing. I read recently that 680-square-foot flats with just two bedrooms now under construction in upper Central district have a price tag of HK$19.8 million. This is beyond belief. Unaffordable homes and stagnant wages have gone on for so long that about half the population lives either in PRH or privately-owned flats sold by the government at heavily subsidized prices.

There will always be a need for PRH but an endless supply is not only an unfair burden on taxpayers it also discourages occupants from moving up the housing ladder. Many occupants have surpassed the income level that makes them eligible for PRH but the cheap rents and improving quality of such flats give them no incentive to move out. Some PRH tenants have told me they will never surrender their flats even if they retire on the mainland. They will pass them on to their children.

Those who shouted the loudest against a limit on PRH did it for self-serving political reasons. Branding themselves as defenders of low-income families endear them to grassroots voters. But there is a moral stench to supporting a policy that essentially discourages upward mobility just to get votes. More than 60 years have passed since the government built Hong Kong’s first PRH estate. Instead of demanding an indefinite supply, all sides should work towards helping grassroots families climb the housing ladder.

Finding enough land is the key. Carrie Lam told me in a recent TV interview she would not touch even the fringes of country parks in return for a consensus on land reclamation outside Victoria Harbor. Sounds like a great compromise. Tens of thousands of families live in subdivided homes barely larger than prisons cells. Hundreds of thousands of people face lengthy waits for PRH.

We need bold new thinking to tackle our housing crisis. That means we must stop politicizing the issue. Instead of dismissing a limit on PRH as unacceptable, opponents should ask Lam for a clear blueprint on how she plans to help PRH tenants move up the housing ladder. Instead of obstructing the government’s every move on finding new land, critics must accept there has to be give and take.

Some critics have even opposed using land for new housing in an area that is home to a species of butterflies. What is more important, making butterflies happy or families squeezed into tiny subdivided flats? Every survey shows unaffordable housing is the top concern of Hong Kong people. I believe politicians will get more votes in the long run by being seen to help grassroots families move up the mobility ladder and putting people above butterflies.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.