HKSAR calls for an integrated legislative plan for affordable, decent housing

The existence of a housing problem has been recognized as such by every administration since the handover and resulted in many initiatives — but despite many positive changes, the overall outcome has been lagging behind the growing needs of the population and resulted in an even larger number of people not being able to afford decent housing today. This is a classic example of what is described in the academic world as a “business dynamics problem”: a connected chain of elements, where fixing one element results in effects on another one, which in turn may lead to a negative or insufficient outcome as opposed to a positive one.

Let us take a step back to describe what we are solving — the different housing needs of various segments of Hong Kong’s population along the dimensions of age, family size and income. Until the age of 18, most children and young adults have to live with their parents, but soon after, some start to have a need or desire to live alone in their own home, be it close to a university or to the workplace. Those lucky ones from wealthier families may get support for renting a private flat at market price, while the less-lucky ones will be stuck with their parents, as no public housing is available for them. Both groups do not have a need for big apartments; small units would suffice. Today, people with some urgent needs end up crammed into subdivided flats.

In their later life stages, single people and surviving partners again could do with smaller flats, also for cost reasons, as they are less burdensome on household finances, but then again, we do not have a public solution for that specific need either. Just putting the elderly into low-quality senior-care homes is not a desirable way to enjoy their golden years

In their 20s and 30s, young couples want to form a family, and have a need for two- or three-bedroom flats. The lower-income groups again need public housing for rent; some of them would sooner or later be able to purchase subsidized flats, if they were available, while others may have to be content with public housing rental flats forever. Creating more private-sector housing units is welcomed for the segment which is better off and can afford to pay market prices, but it does not provide a housing solution for the majority of the population, which cannot afford it. I believe our past policies have focused too much on providing private housing instead of putting much more emphasis and money on public housing for rent and subsidized housing for purchase.

In their later life stages, single people and surviving partners again could do with smaller flats, also for cost reasons, as they are less burdensome on household finances, but then again, we do not have a public solution for that specific need either. Just putting the elderly into low-quality senior-care homes is not a desirable way to enjoy their golden years.

To address these long-time unresolved necessities, the development of an integrated, actionable set of legislative initiatives is required. It needs to start with putting the facts together and quantify the current and future needs of each segment, have a dialogue with all stakeholders, develop a comprehensive and integrated plan, and turn it into legislative changes and administrative actions.

1. An objective fact-based understanding of the problem. Different segments of the population elements will require different solutions. For example, the existence of subdivided flats is the market response to the need of a segment of the population that can afford only a certain level of rent. How many housing units at that rental point are needed, and what is the minimum standard which Hong Kong society should mandate? Or, what to do with the large, aging and increasingly dilapidated public housing estates with partial private ownership under the Tenants Purchase Scheme? In the years to come, we will see a consequence of the inability of the private owners to finance a redevelopment and the impossibility of obtaining the necessary majority vote for selling the whole estate for redevelopment. How many new and additional 100,000 housing units could be created by a redevelopment of these estates in attractive locations, where we already have transport infrastructure in place?

2. The active involvement of key stakeholders is imperative in validating the diagnosis, interpreting its root causes, and developing options for the solutions. These stakeholders include: A) Hong Kong’s real estate developers who provide the solutions for the housing needs of Hong Kong, given the constraints of land availability, land price and building regulations — all influenced or determined by the government and the Legislative Council. B) All government departments dealing with the administration of housing-related executive actions, like the Lands Department and Planning Department. They follow overall policies formulated by the chief executive and the laws and ordinances dealing with the specific housing and related aspects. C) The special authorities created to manage certain elements of the land and housing sector, like the Urban Renewal Authority and the Housing Authority. Each of them follows a specific mandate under which they were founded and decide and execute annual and multi-annual programs/actions within their interpretation of the mandate, the financial resources provided by the government’s budget and the capabilities and constraints of their respective organizations. 

Again, mandate, budget and organizational setup are determined by LegCo and the government. D) The authority to be set up for implementing or overseeing the “Northern Metropolis Development Strategy”, which will be an important partner in this process, as it will interface with all members of the “housing eco-system” and develop an important perspective on what can be improved as it pursues the implementation of the Northern Metropolis project. E) Social institutions — both government and NGOs who help the population in dealing with their housing problems and have the benefit of a close understanding of the reality and actual nature of these problems faced by our population.

3. Development of several integrated options to solve the identified issues of the housing problem. Any solution has to be designed after stepping back and looking at all the elements together — and then introduce changes into the system, which will have positive knock-on effects as opposed to negative ones. There may be more than one of those “integrative solutions”, which can be designed. This is the core element of the search for a solution and will involve the participation of and collaboration with representatives of all stakeholders.

4. Construct alignment on which of the developed integrated options should be pursued within LegCo and the government. There will be trade-offs between magnitude and speed of outcomes, financial resources required, degree of legislative changes needed, etc. which will have to be debated in the relevant forums to choose one path forward.

5. Translation of the chosen integrated option into distinct legislative initiatives resulting in new or amended laws and ordinances.

We all like to look for quick solutions to problems, and many problems are solved that way. The housing problem in Hong Kong has proved resistant to simple solutions and specific individual projects. To be more successful than we have been until now, we have to take a step back, look at the whole picture, and then introduce some fundamental changes. It is not rocket science, but requires the patience to think things through and resist the temptation of quick, simplistic solutions. We need to fix this once and for all.

Within this framework, I will seek dialogue with all stakeholders and put forward an overall plan and specific elements to execute with. You can expect to hear from me on specific proposals as we evolve together in our thinking on what needs to change and be implemented to provide affordable and decent housing for all people in Hong Kong.

The author is a solicitor of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.