URA approach puts profits before people, say critics

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 April, 2014, 12:20pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 April, 2014, 12:20pm

To many social activists, the Urban Renewal Authority's (URA) pledge to adopt a "people-first, district-based" approach in its work rings hollow.

Instead, critics accuse the authority of colluding with developers to maximise profits; razing run-down tenements in older districts only to build high-end residential and commercial blocks while ignoring the needs of low-income residents originally living in the area.

The URA's bottom line is certainly to be envied: its profits more than doubled from HK$1.8 billion in 2011/2012 to HK$4.4 billion in 2012/13, But how far has the authority succeeded in its stated mission to improve living conditions of residents in dilapidated quarters?

Residents in run-down districts facing renewal are now given four options for compensation as their homes are demolished to make way for redevelopment.

Owner-occupiers may receive cash equivalent to the value of a seven-year-old flat of similar size in the same locality.

Residents may also receive a public housing flat within the district, provided they meet the eligibility criteria. The remaining options are flat-for-flat exchanges.

Affected residents who want to continue living in the district may apply for a flat in the upcoming URA development, but only in the lowest five to eight floors.

Those who don't mind relocating can opt for a unit in the URA's Kai Tak project, where the first 500 flats are expected to be ready in 2016.

However, the conditions are so tough, most residents affected by renewal cannot continue living in their original district, says Victor Yuen Chi-yan, founder of concern group Living In Kwun Tong.

"Only owners who have lived in their homes continuously [since purchase] are eligible for the cash compensation. Those who let the flats out at any point will receive reduced payouts.

"But even if eligible for the full payout, owners won't be able to buy a similar flat in the original district. When the URA announces the compensation, property prices in the area instantly shoot up and this isn't taken into account."

The flat-for-flat scheme is such a poor bargain only one out of 1,600 eligible residents registered interest in Park Metropolitan, the first estate to be completed in the Kwun Tong renewal programme, Yuen says.

"Interest is lukewarm because they must first fork out HK$2 million of their own money [as a down payment] for a Park Metropolitan unit, which sells for about HK$15,000 per square foot. After receiving the payout, they must wait for years before the new residential development is completed. In the meantime, property prices continue to shoot up.

"In Taiwan, people in similar situations receive rental subsidies during this time. But Hong Kong residents get nothing."

The URA doesn't want to speculate on reasons for the cool response to its flat-for flat scheme, a spokesman says. "Owners who opt for the scheme are well aware of prices for new flats, and take into account their affordability. No one can accurately predict the market performance in a few years. There is always a risk to buyer and seller."

The URA has drawn considerable flak for taking over ageing properties in Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui only to turn out slick blocks that sell for a at least HK$18,000 per square foot.

Yuen argues it should develop more diverse options in renewal programmes in Kwun Tong, instead of creating a mini Taikoo Shing.

"Kwun Tong is one of the poorest districts in Hong Kong. How can residents afford such luxury housing? Eligible residents can jump to the top of the queue of 180,000 people currently waiting for public housing. However, there are few public housing flats available in Kwun Tong.

"The URA should collaborate with the Housing Authority to build more public housing or partner with NGOs to form housing co-operatives. Only then can the severe housing shortage problem be solved."

But inexpensive housing is not on the URA's agenda.

Under the government's urban renewal strategy, its spokesman says, "redevelopment and rehabilitation are the two core businesses of the URA. Provision of affordable housing for ordinary or lower-income residents is not the mandate."