Why we should sell our public housing for HK$1 per flat
Target to accommodate 60 per cent of the population in public housing.
John Tsang Chun-wah
I think John Tsang faces an underlying problem that he does not recognise. My figures show that, although we have about 123,000 more public housing rental units than in 1990, we have 600,000 fewer people living in them.
This is the story the chart tells me. The figures come from the Housing Authority itself and they show you that the average household size in public rental housing has fallen from 4.4 people in 1990 to less than 2.8 people at present.
That same household ratio in private housing has also gone down over this period but much less steeply, from 3.3 persons to about 2.9, although I only have figures for this sector up to 2014.
Uncertain data is a problem in all these calculations and I can understand why the Housing Authority, for one, does not wish to preen itself about all this. It is an embarrassment. For every step forward in the goal of providing housing to the needy we take two steps back in actually meeting this goal.
But while I am ready to admit that my figures may be inexact, the trend is unmistakeable. Household size in public housing has plummeted, much more than in private housing and this accounts for a great deal of what we call the housing shortage.
It is therefore not really an absolute shortage. It is a shortfall from housing aspirations. If people today lived with as many other family members as people did in 1990, no one could speak of a housing shortage. We would have a housing surplus.
Thus what we are looking at here in all the talk of meeting housing needs is more of a social phenomenon than it is a housing problem.
Richard Wong of Hong Kong University, who has written about these falling household ratios frequently in these pages, attributes a great deal of it to higher divorce rates, particularly in marriages of Hong Kong men and mainland women.
But it is also a general pattern in economies with growing income disparity, from which Hong Kong certainly seems to suffer at the moment. There are far more broken homes among the working class than among the middle class in such environments.
Treating it purely as a housing shortage then is unlikely to offer a solution. We could possibly double our housing stock and still hear complaints of shortages from people who are unhappy with their present companions but are unlikely to find themselves happier with new ones.
However, Richard has also offered one partial solution. Just give those public housing flats away.
I suggest selling them to the sitting tenants for a dollar a flat to make it legal. Instantly these people would hold equity in their economy and think much more responsibly about their true housing needs and the cost of their aspirations.
It is not a complete solution but I think it would go a lot further towards addressing the problem than John Tsang’s idea of stuffing 60 per cent of the population into public housing. He could never get there anyway with the present downwards trend in the household ratio, even if he spent the entire government budget on housing.
I actually suspect that he pulled that 60 per cent figure out of thin air and never really thought about it all that much. I certainly saw no explanation of why 60 per cent.
In fact, I think he does not even have any hard figure in mind of what it is at the moment. The available figures are, frankly, a little murky and mostly derivative.
What a challenge in target shooting. You know what you want to hit but you can’t even say where you’re standing.