Greed's helpmate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 March, 2011, 12:00am

So, you think my landlord hitting me with a 26 per cent rent rise after just one year is greed gone mad? Think again. A reader contacted me to say that what I wrote two weeks ago was nothing - he had been hit with a 40 per cent increase. I asked if his salary had gone up by that much. He laughed, but it was obviously not a joyous one.

I've been doing some of that kind of laughing too, after my initial fury. It is a laugh of resignation, of knowing there is nothing I can do, and of knowing there is a lot our government can do but will not.

I have spent much time cursing Hong Kong's landlords and property developers for whom greed has no boundaries. If one of them would follow Bill Gates in donating his fortune to charity I might be appeased. That is something I suspect will never happen.

But let us not heap all our scorn on the landlords and developers. Yes, they triple your rent in some cases, and they build box-like flats with windows that look out to your neighbour's laundry, marketing them as luxury homes surrounded by lush greenery. But they do this because lax laws let them.

In cursing our developers, we forget that the bureaucrats who rule us created the environment for runaway greed in the property sector. They now talk of releasing more land to cool the market but I have yet to hear them admit they caused the overheating.

Let me remind you of what they did. They dried up land supply for years. And they abruptly ended the government's subsidised home-ownership policy, which had helped steady flat prices. They even left hundreds of already completed home-ownership flats empty to create a shortage. They did all this during an economic downturn in the past decade, when developers and homeowners complained prices dropped too much.

A robust economic recovery coupled with a land scarcity and flat shortage caused prices to top previous records, fanning speculative greed. But the bureaucrats who forced prices up by listening to the developers and homeowners were deaf to the rest of us when homes became unaffordably pricey. It took public anger to reach dangerous levels to force our bureaucrats into several half-hearted measures, which have done little to cool the market.

Do not try to understand why our leaders will not act when places such as Singapore and even the mainland have taken decisive steps to cool their overheated markets. It will only baffle you. I find it baffling that the government feels homeowners and developers need protection from falling prices but others do not need protection from rising prices.

In trying to figure that out, it might help to remember that our top policymakers live an almost unreal life. They are among the highest-paid bureaucrats in the world, with perks that include subsidised housing, overseas education allowance for their children and even free home air-conditioning for some. When you are unelected, have an iron rice bowl job, and do not pay a market rate for your luxury home, how can you possibly understand the plight of those struggling to afford even a modest flat?

Outsiders would find it hilariously puzzling that Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah has become the target of such public ridicule even though he is giving away HK$6,000 to every adult Hong Kong citizen.

Tsang is being mocked not for the handouts but for being clueless about what the people wanted from his budget, resulting in his many flip-flops. At first he said cash handouts were bad. Then he agreed to give them anyway, even to citizens who had long emigrated, but not to new immigrants. Now, new immigrants would get the HK$6,000, too. The government did all this under pressure.

If our bureaucrats were more clued in, they would have seen rising anger over runaway property prices well before the anger reached boiling point. Their ineffective measures show they still do not get it. How can a government get it when it cannot even give away money without a backlash?

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster