Singled out for discrimination

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2005, 12:00am

Only six years ago, many young couples in Hong Kong had to get married before they could buy a subsidised flat or obtain a government housing loan.

The rules to exclude singles from housing benefits were changed after the Equal Opportunities Commission found that they were discriminatory.

Now, unbelievably, the Housing Authority wants to turn back the clock by preventing young, single people from applying for public housing units.

On Monday, it announced a number of proposals to stop singles aged below 35 from applying. These include: a straightforward ban; a ban on single people already living in public housing with their families; a quota system for young singles; and a scheme offering priority to older singles.

The move is blatant discrimination on the grounds of age and family status. But the Equal Opportunities Commission has said privately that nothing much can be done to stop it, since allocation of public housing is exempt from the Family Status Discrimination Ordinance. Also, there is no legislation in Hong Kong against age discrimination.

Housing officials said on Monday that young, single people had abused the system. According to their figures, in 1998-99, 21 per cent of the 26,400 new households waiting to be assigned public housing were single people. By 2004-05, 44 per cent of the 32,000 new households on the waiting list were single people.

These figures do not help officials explain their case; in fact they further expose their failure. Just what have they done in the past seven years to tackle the problem of this rise in single applicants?

Indeed, why should single people aged below 35 not be allowed to apply for public housing? Apparently, the line was drawn on the grounds of political expediency, since 42 per cent of single applicants were under 35.

The officials also pointed out that about 10 per cent of the single applicants are university graduates, who, they say, should not rely on government housing because their salary is likely to increase substantially over time.

But why should graduates not be allowed to apply, as long as they have passed the means test? If this bizarre rationale stands up, will the government, in future, ban graduates and young, single people from medical care and welfare payments even if they are poor? It is a disgrace if a university degree should become a cause of discrimination.

The officials also said that young singles should be encouraged to live with their parents until they were married, revealing just how out of touch they are. Hong Kong has long been encouraging the new generation to be independent and critical, yet officials believe that the young should stay with their family. Surely that is a contradiction.

More importantly, the officials were not able to explain why they could not allow single people to move into public housing, and remove them when they became wealthy. After many years, the government is still unable to draft and enforce an effective policy to remove wealthy tenants. Now it has turned to an easy target.

So, what should be done? More flats need to be built for singles; or family units should be converted. At the same time, regular means tests should be conducted to ensure that wealthy tenants make way for the more needy.

The officials should understand that the city has changed. It is no longer customary for grown-up children to live with their parents, and more and more people are choosing to remain single.

They should also remember that single people are Hong Kong citizens, and they deserve the same rights as others.

Quinton Chan is the Post's deputy news editor