The case for a minimum living space

Such an initiative would do more for social harmony and political stability in Hong Kong than any democratic reform

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 February, 2018, 1:25am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 February, 2018, 1:24am

Many countries are now actively debating about a universal basic income for everyone. Some are even experimenting with the controversial idea. In Hong Kong, though, instead of handing out a living wage, it would be far more practical – and revolutionary – to guarantee by law a minimum living space for everyone.

Far more than giving people cash, providing a roof over their heads with enough space befitting basic privacy and dignity would be far more humane. But wait a minute, we actually used to do it under the Brits. The death of Michael Wright, often called the “father of public housing”, is a reminder that the city once managed something pioneering and decent for the poor and low-income groups. Not everything about British colonialism was bad; some initiatives are worth emulating.

Hong Kong’s ‘father of public housing’ recalls POW camp life and the city’s challenges in 1960s

One of the most significant and pernicious developments starting with late British colonialism but became totally parasitic on the economy has been the way we have commoditised living space. This is one reason why we have a few of the world’s richest people and the most expensive property market, but 200,000 people residing in subdivided flats. Of these, one in three live in units that average 49.5 sq ft per person – smaller than a prison cell, which averages about 75 sq ft. The other 65 per cent – according to government figures – live mostly in units ranging from 75 to 140 sq ft.

Probably many if not most of them are among 150,200 families waiting in line for public housing, the average queue being about four years, if you discount non-elderly and one-person applicants.

Don’t tell me we can’t do it because we don’t have full democracy.

Singapore is pretty authoritarian and it manages to provide decent public housing to the vast majority of its citizens. Probably all our major political parties could be convinced to support legislating a “basic living space”, whether they are government-friendly or part of the opposition. Look on it as a key clause in a new social contract.

The government, which owns all the land in Hong Kong and with its trillion-dollar surplus, most definitely has the resources. And even the biggest developers probably would not oppose such an initiative, having seen their reputations dragged through the mud in recent years, even by mainland government mouthpieces.

Such an initiative, I believe, would do more for social harmony and political stability than any democratic reform.