Affordable housing requires not more land but wiser use
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has made ensuring affordable housing a priority. But we are repeatedly told that there is not enough available land, making the pledge a challenge to deliver. A satellite photograph of Hong Kong's 1,100 square kilometres says otherwise, as does a trip to the New Territories, where there is unused space aplenty. With the government having total say over how it is used, the matter becomes less one of shortage than practicality and resolve.
Just 6.8 per cent of land is used for homes and little more than half is in urban areas. Country parks and conservation zones account for 46 per cent. Property developers are sitting on large land banks, with the five biggest having more than 1,200 hectares, enough for homes for hundreds of thousands of people. The government's reserves are a third of that, but half has been set aside for homes for New Territories' indigenous male villagers, as stipulated under the 1972 small-house policy.
Leung has set a target of ensuring 20,000 flats are built each year. That is in keeping with projections that the population will grow by 1.8 million by 2039. The government estimates that providing enough homes will require 1,500 hectares of land. Among proposed schemes are rezoning industrial land, buying up farmland and reclaiming surrounding waters.
Henderson Land, with more in its land bank than any other developer, has offered one solution: chairman Lee Shau-kee says his company is willing to build low-cost flats, providing the government gives incentives. That is an innovative approach to the problem, but there are obviously other ways to meet the land and housing challenge. Those already raised are controversial, expensive or insufficient. If goals are to be met, we have to overhaul our land policy.
For one, the government could impose a tax on developers for not using land that they are holding within a specified period. Although country parks are much cherished for recreation and necessary for water catchment, with just 5 per cent of their area equalling the present urban private residential zone, perhaps it is time to reassess how much of our green belts we want and need. Lantau Island has been largely off-limits for development, but maybe now is the time to change that thinking. Then there is the small-house policy - unsustainable, chauvinistic and unfair to urban residents.
There is plainly enough land to meet our future needs. We just need to use it wisely and manage it better.