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Hong Kong housing

Will mixed-use buildings for Hong Kong starter homes create rich-poor resident divide?

More stakeholder discussion suggested to avoid London trend of ‘doors for the poor’ in shared housing estates

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 October, 2017, 8:32am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 October, 2017, 8:31am

The highly anticipated Starter Home scheme in Hong Kong may be an opportunity to develop a new mixed-used model as proposed by developers, but concerns have been raised after similar projects overseas were criticised for segregating those who were less well off.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who will deliver her first policy address next week, has vowed not to use land reserved for public rental housing to build starter homes, aimed to provide affordable flats for young middle-class households.

This would mean the scheme may use land slated for private development. Developers said they were willing to cooperate to help first-time home buyers, the target group of starter homes.

The developers floated ideas of public-private projects, with industry analysts suggesting that these buildings could contain a certain proportion of affordably priced rental flats in exchange for government concessions.

Will Hong Kong’s Starter Homes scheme help young families get on property ladder or fatten the pockets of developers?

The concept has been applied overseas. In New York, private developers provide affordable housing in exchange for tax breaks, but they are free to build different entrances to separate tenants who pay the market rate from those who don’t.

In a notorious case involving a Manhattan project, 55 out of 274 flats of a 33-storey tower were rented to lower-income families. There are no dishwashers or light fixtures in these flats.

Residents had to use a separate door to enter the building and cannot enjoy higher end facilities such as the gym and swimming pool.

In 2015, the city passed a bill to standardise entrances in such buildings, so that all residents pass through the same doors.

‘Starter Homes’ plan may offer prices ‘lower than half of Hong Kong market rate’

In London, new developments in many locations are required to provide affordable housing for low-income families to gain planning permission, and “poor doors” have become a growing trend there.

Professor Rebecca Chiu Lai-har, who heads the department of urban planning and design at the University of Hong Kong, said such separation would be “a less desirable scenario” locally.

On the other hand, she said there would be less disputes because each side would have their own facilities and not have to “cross lines”.

“Most people like to live with others who have similar socio-economic circumstances,” Chiu said.

Another downside to sharing facilities would be that lower-income households would then also have to pay higher management fees, she added.

Tristance Kee Yee-chun, an associate professor of HKU’s department of architecture, said engaging the public in the design and planning phases would be key to preventing any segregation.

She said developers and different community stakeholders could come together and discuss about design, planning and facility distribution before the start of a project.

She added that such early engagement could also reduce accusations about public-private collusion.

“Hong Kong is falling behind in public engagement, and the government does not know what people in communities actually need,” Kee said.

“If different stakeholders are highly engaged, the resulting projects ... may not face so much criticism.”