How Hong Kong’s greedy property tycoons can redeem themselves

Michael Chugani says even if the super-rich developers won’t give away most of their wealth, they should donate one block in each new residential complex to the government for starter homes, to help ease the problem of unaffordable housing in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 October, 2017, 2:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 October, 2017, 7:18pm

Is there a Bill Gates out there? How about a Warren Buffett or Mark Zuckerberg? Don’t tell me Hong Kong doesn’t have even a single tycoon willing to part with his fortune to fight global poverty and disease. That’s exactly true, not a single one. Never mind that our tycoons are always on the world’s super-rich list.

Their wealth is jaw-dropping, acquired mostly from the property sector, which has long been heavily skewed in favour of a handful of developers. Hong Kong’s homes are the world’s priciest yet selling them is easier than printing money. Frenzied buyers line up to fill the pockets of developers.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for our property tycoons to give their wealth away like Gates or Buffett, who had the good sense to realise they can’t possibly spend all they have even if they leave billions for their future generations. Virtually all the super-rich who have pledged to donate at least half their fortunes to make the world a better place are Westerners, mostly Americans.

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Why not a Hong Kong tycoon? Forget it. Asians wouldn’t dream of parting with their fortunes, not Chinese, Indians, Japanese or South Koreans. The Asian trait is to amass ever more to pass down to their children who in turn are expected to pass it all down to their own offspring.

You see that happening right here in Hong Kong. Compare that with Gates and Buffett, who have said they will only leave a fraction of their fortunes to their children.

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When our rich do give, it comes with strings attached, like naming buildings after them or to grease their mainland businesses. There’s now a golden opportunity for our property tycoons to redeem themselves without having to give away even a tenth of their stupendous wealth. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor wants to make our outrageous home prices affordable to ordinary people. That’s pie in the sky as long as the names of our tycoons are synonymous with greed.

Lam’s so-called “starter homes” proposal for young first-time buyers has already sparked suspicion that it’s just a cover for yet more collusion between the tycoons and the government. But what if property developers donate one block in each new residential complex to the government for starter homes instead of selling the flats themselves at a still-profitable price set by the government?

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Donate? Forsake profits? Have I gone bonkers, you ask? Not at all. Lam said one way to get her starter homes plan off the ground is to increase the plot ratio on rural sites owned by developers. In return, the developers would set aside some cheaper-priced flats for middle-class first-time buyers.

Hong Kong’s housing complexes often comprise dozens of towering blocks. It’s pocket change for the developers to hand one in each complex to the government.

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They can even emblazon their names on them. Donating a block in each complex won’t put them in the same league as Gates or Buffett, but I can assure them it would make them sleep better at night. The government can sell the donated flats to qualified first-time buyers at affordable prices and use the proceeds for public housing.

Just imagine the headlines if the developers play ball. Gone will be the belief that they are vultures

Just imagine the headlines if the developers play ball. Gone will be the widespread public belief that they are vultures who feed on Hongkongers to fatten their wallets.

It’s a cheap price to pay for the people to once again look up to tycoons instead of deriding them as bloodsuckers whose greed knows no limits.

Call me a dreamer, but worthy ideas often start out as dreams. I dare anyone to say that asking our property tycoons to donate just one block in each housing complex for sale to young families priced out of the private housing market is not a worthy goal.

The developers are free to read this, chuckle, and continue to squeeze the people. If they do that, I wish them a good night’s sleep.

Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host