Stop rampant abuse of government's offer of low-rent public flats

Chu Kar-kin calls for a crackdown to ensure only people in need benefit

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 November, 2013, 4:37am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 November, 2013, 4:37am

Some public housing tenants are abusing the use of their apartments while hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people remain on the waiting list. Contradictions abound.

Tenants with income that exceeds the government-mandated ceiling are requested only to pay up to double the rent, which normally averages HK$1,500. Tenants whose assets and income both exceed the ceiling must vacate their flats - but it can take years to move them out. Meanwhile, families who need shelter have to squeeze themselves into subdivided units. Who is at fault?

The supply of public housing is not meeting demand. It has become common practice for young people to submit an application for public housing once they reach 18, no matter what their actual needs are. Even university graduates join the queue. Some are encouraged to do so by their parents.

The supply of flats is restricted by land supply and the long construction time for new buildings. With demand seemingly rising each year, the supply is unlikely to meet needs by the end of this government's term.

Excluding the quotas for single elderly applicants, on average, it takes more than the three years the administration has pledged as its target for each eligible applicant to get a government flat.

Abuses have been revealed, yet the Housing Authority is obviously not doing its job properly. Many cases end up with a warning or a closed file, rather than a prosecution. Taxpayers and those waiting in the long queues are frustrated.

Abuse includes using the flats for commercial activities: as business premises for hair stylists and other service providers; as food pantries and for storage; as tuition rooms or even mahjong parlours. This is unfair to competitors who have to pay higher rents in malls.

Some tenants also flout the rules by letting or subletting the unit then pocketing the rent. Some couples even pretend to get a divorce to get an additional unit.

Existing policies are unfair in another way. Some tenants are granted the right to buy their flat at below-market prices, but not others. As a result, selected tenants become landlords with taxpayers' funding. Later on, after the prices of these former public housing flats have rocketed, the owners sell for a tidy profit.

Local applicants are discriminated against when discretion is exercised to give priority to mainland migrants in need. This is unacceptable. Eligibility should be the main criteria and discretion should not be exercised. Being "humane" is not an excuse; after all, some locals live in dire poverty, too, in temporary shelters and poor conditions.

If these migrants meet the eligibility criteria, then they can join the queue. But, surely, it would be better if they were able to manage on their own. Frankly, we do not need dependants in competition for scare resources.

In the long run, the authority must reformulate public housing policy. The income ceiling for family applicants should be varied. The government should set a fixed duration for renting a unit, just like in the private market.

The rent should also be raised, to, say, two-thirds of the market rate in the private sector.

To tackle abuse of the system, the authority should carry out more random inspections after receiving complaints. Prosecution should follow, rather than a caution. Repeat offenders should be made to surrender their apartments immediately.

A message must be sent out - public housing should be defined as a right, not welfare. It is a publicly-funded resource, never an asset to the occupant. The system should not be abused in order to make money. It's time we stopped showing mercy to wrong-doers.

Chu Kar-kin is chief convenor of a series of youth exchanges with government officials