We’re all working for landlords: readers share their views on Hong Kong’s housing woes

Yonden Lhatoo lets readers weigh in on our housing policy failures and what needs to be done to provide a basic right in such a prosperous city

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 May, 2016, 6:29pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 May, 2016, 6:29pm

“Let’s face it, all of us in Hong Kong are just working for landlords,” a reader said in response to my last column on the sorry state of housing in our city.

Of all the feedback I received, I was struck by how he’d hit the nail on the head with the simplest and most obvious observation. Think about it: every time you pay for an overpriced meal in a restaurant or buy an expensive item in a shop, you’re shelling out extra cash for the benefit of a landlord behind the scenes charging exorbitant rent to a hapless entrepreneur.

If you’re paying a mortgage instead of rent, your bank is the landlord. In one way or the other, we’re all working for landlords.

On that rather disturbing note, I thought I’d do something different this week and use this space to share some of the criticism and suggestions made by readers.

They were unanimous in agreeing that our tycoons and government have more than enough land and money between them to house Hong Kong’s entire population of seven million in comfort and dignity.

They also lamented the lack of generosity, guts and political will to make that happen.

John Adams wrote: “While normal people are cramped into minuscule private flats or live in public housing, the tycoons are allowed to hold enormous land banks for years, decades without penalty or even tax.”

EricTan was grimly pessimistic: “The fate of Hong Kong’s economy has been surrendered to property tycoons and developers. If everyone in Hong Kong could afford a home, the entire economy would collapse.”

Reader friday-1212 suggested imposing restrictions on developers “that they must build flats no less than a certain size ... Is that too much to ask for?”

Reader joyalsofi had another suggestion: “Disallowing any developer from bidding on new land auctions if they hold more than a specified amount of land ... might go some distance in persuading the developers to actually develop these parcels. Certainly ... a hefty tax on un-built-upon holdings, as well as unoccupied flats, would do wonders to free up more land and living space.”

Citizen123456 disagreed: “Taxing developers for undeveloped purchased land is a poorly thought economic policy. Developers have three options – residential, retail or commercial. How will a tax guarantee the developer will choose to develop residential properties over retail and commercial?”

Many drew comparisons with how Singapore mastered housing for the masses with a nation-building mindset and an iron-willed government that persuaded tycoons to part with their land banks for the greater good.

Incidentally, a colleague on holiday in Singapore, her home town, sent me a photo of a random property listing with a typical offer there: HK$2.8 million for a 1,180 sq ft flat. “This is why the government gets re-elected every time, despite the restrictions,” she said.

Are you listening, Leung Chun-ying, or anyone else aiming to run for chief executive next year?

A reader who regularly writes to me with astute observations on life in Hong Kong had an interesting personal take on the issue.

“Almost 10 years ago, when property prices were pretty low, I had a chance to buy a flat in the estate where I’m living,” he wrote. “But I decided to use my money to finance an education overseas. That cost me a chunk of my savings, but I never regretted my decision.”

Good for you, sir. And my deepest sympathies to all those struggling to pay for a roof over their heads in Asia’s world city.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post