Counting the cost of the Hong Kong government’s deal with the Link Reit on malls and markets

Real estate experts say the government, which sold shopping and car parking facilities to the Link, is to blame for the situation, rather than the trust and its management alone

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2016, 10:54pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2016, 11:27pm

On a typical weekday afternoon, the public area of one of the most remote public housing estates in east Kowloon’s Lam Tin – perched furthest uphill – appears overrun by sleepy elderly folk.

In Hong Kong’s midsummer heat, almost 100 of them occupy the narrow spaces between the residential blocks of Hing Tin Estate, dozing off on benches, playing chess, or watching others play the game in a tiny Chinese-style pavilion, sitting on the edge of planters chatting or ambling about slowly.

While they look relaxed, one of their daily routines has actually been made more difficult. The estate has a small two-storey complex with a mall and wet market, but a large part of it has gradually emptied since the government sold the complex to property investment trust Link Reit in 2005.

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The situation did not get better after the Link subsequently sold the complex and its car park to a private investor in 2014 for HK$210 million. Today, fewer than 10 shops and stalls remain in the complex. About 80 per cent of the space is abandoned.

Now, the elderly residents must trek almost half an hour to and from the nearest shopping centre, Tak Tin Plaza, in the summer’s scorching sun or pouring rain to buy their daily groceries. There is no legal crossing on ground level on the way to the plaza and there is no lift installed in the nearest footbridge.

“My knees hurt every time when I go to Tak Tin,” said Chong Ngoc-tieu, in her late 60s, who has lived on the estate for 27 years.

“Things were better when the government ran Hing Tin. There were many things to buy at that time. But after they sold it to the Link, [the Link] increased the rent, so people started to move out. Now the mall is like a ghost town.”

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Concern groups have been protesting against the Link’s business model of revamping its public housing estate malls and markets, which are often located in areas with no competitors, hiking rent and driving out small tenants. The trust’s management also sold shopping facilities too remote to make money – such as Hing Tin – together with adjacent car parks to speculators vying to flip the parking lots for a quick profit.

The Link also leased out over 40 per cent of its markets to single operators whom, the Post has found, can set not just the rent, but also plant their own stalls in the markets, in a move that critics say is to monopolise trade.

The city’s top leaders, including Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, have also criticised the Link. Leung vowed to provide more affordable alternatives.

But real estate experts say the government, which sold the shopping and car parking facilities to the Link, is to blame for the situation, rather than the trust and its management alone. They doubt the government can fulfil its pledge to provide options, citing a lack of premises and pointing out that the Housing Authority (HA) has been adopting a system highly similar to the Link’s in running its malls and markets.

A dilemma created by the government

The ongoing feud began during Hong Kong’s financial crisis that came when the dotcom bubble burst in 2000 and was exacerbated by the deadly Sars outbreak in 2003. To boost the property market, the government in 2002 suspended the building and sale of subsidised flats under the HA’s Home Ownership Scheme, which led to the authority’s first post-handover operating deficit of HK$589 million in fiscal year 2003-04.

To find money to build more public rental housing, the HA in 2005 privatised its 180 shopping and car parking facilities by listing the Link, raising HK$34 billion. The government did not own any share in the trust, leaving the malls, markets and car parks completely in private hands.

Today the Link has a market value of HK$128 billion, owning 78 wet markets, 131 malls and 155 car parks.

“The government is the one most deserving of being criticised,” said Professor Leo Sin Yat-ming, associate director of Chinese University’s Centre for Hospitality and Real Estate Research. “It did not set any stipulations limiting the Link’s ability to raise rent. Now [Leung] comes out and lashes out at the Link randomly. He’s saying white is black.”

Sin said the markets and malls under the HA failed to attract enough customers because the government did not have a commercial interest to manage the facilities properly. He said the Link’s renovations, though making rent higher, revived some shopping malls and drew in more customers.

The Link spent HK$25 million to renovate a wet market in Siu Sai Wan in east Hong Kong Island, which reopened last year. The market, looking more like a supermarket, not only sells fresh meat, fish and vegetables, but Japanese and Korean delicacies too.

It also has a fresh fruit vending machine and the city’s first virtual chicken shopping system, which lets customers choose the poultry they want from watching a live webcast of the birds on a plasma television mounted above the i-Chicken stall. The chickens, kept in a nearby market, are then slaughtered and delivered within half an hour.

“I used to take a bus to the [government-run] wet market in Chai Wan,” said Elsa Wong, a 69-year-old resident in Siu Sai Wan. “But these few years I’ve been choosing the Link because it’s closer... Especially now after their renovation, I don’t have to worry about falling over because of the slippery floors anymore.”

Eric Lo, owner of a printing and photocopying shop in Link-owned Un Chau Shopping Centre in Cheung Sha Wan, said he moved to the centre from an HA mall in Kwai Chung in 2014 because there were too few customers there.

Lo, in his 50s, said though the rent is higher at Un Chau, there are more customers. He declined to reveal the rent but said he spends 25 to 30 per cent of his monthly income on it.

A recipe for monopoly?

But where there are winners, there are losers.

The Link-owned Tin Shui market in Tin Shui Wai in the New Territories and Siu Sai Wan market are both leased out to Uni-China (Market) Management, which also owns a large fresh meat trading business.

All six fresh pork stalls – under three different names – in both markets are subsidiaries of the same company, Yearly Golden Rise Limited, whose director, Jackie Ling Wai-yip is also the director of Uni-China.

“The markets have been thoroughly monopolised by Uni-China,” said Sophia So Lok-yee, chairwoman of concern group The Link Watch.

There were almost 20 chain stores in three Link-owned wet markets the Post visited in Tin Shui Wai and Siu Sai Wan, including one with 22 branches across Hong Kong.

A fruit vendor at Tin Shui market said rent had increased by 30 per cent to at least HK$40,000 for an 80 sq ft space. A property agent managing the Tin Shui market also confirmed monthly rent for fruit and vegetable stalls is at least HK$40,000 while the rent for dried good stores is HK$32,000.

“It’s not fair, but they’re a private company, they can do what they want,” said the vendor, surnamed Tam. “The government can’t do anything about it.”

There are five wet markets in Tin Shui Wai, with four owned by the Link and only one run by the government.

Wong Ching, a 66-year-old housewife living in the district, said she had no choice but to visit a Link-owned market because of its proximity.

“Everything is decided by the Link here,” said Wong. “But what choice do I have? It’s just more convenient for me.”

A Uni-China spokesman said the company can choose to run its own outlets or lease the stall spaces to others. He said the company had taken market rate as a benchmark in setting rents, and that fully-occupied Tin Shui market and 90 per cent-occupied Siu Sai Wan market indicated rents were acceptable.

A Link spokeswoman said rental costs account for an average of 11.7 per cent of tenants’ sales in Link markets, which is lower than the market level of 15 to 20 per cent. She said the Link’s average monthly rent was HK$50 per square foot as of March. This compared to the average rent of HK$178.4 per square foot at private retail premises in the same month, according to figures reported by the Rating and Valuation Department.

The spokeswoman added that the company had reviewed this leasing system given public concerns, and that it would not lease any more stalls to single operators until the review was completed.

Similarly under review is the Link’s tactic of selling less profitable malls with car parks to single speculators, who then sell parking spaces at a profit. As of April, the Link has sold 23 malls and car parks for a total of HK$8.3 billion.

Private investor Lam Chi-fung bought Hing Tin shopping complex in Lam Tin in 2014 with HK$210 million, a sum which he fully recovered last year by selling the adjacent 330 parking spaces.

Regarding the shopping facilities that have been largely left empty, Lam said he planned to renovate them in two years. He said he had stopped renewing contracts with tenants since 2014 and that the current tenants needed to pay rent on a monthly basis.

Local district councillor Chan Man-kin, of the Democratic Party, said this approach deterred businesses because they could be kicked out at any time.

Chan said Hing Tin’s ageing population was in urgent need of shopping places nearby, but Lam has not been in touch with him or other concerned parties.

The government may not be a better choice

With all the problems surfacing, it seems timely that the government has vowed to provide alternatives, though officials have not revealed any details.

But a Post visit to three government-run malls and two markets found prices were not significantly cheaper than those in Link complexes. The number of customers in some of the premises also appeared to be lower than that in Link venues.

The average price of half a pound of beef at the three Link markets was HK$35, compared to HK$42 in a government market in Chai Wan. Another government market in Tin Shui Wai did not have beef for sale.

To buy fish, vegetables, tomatoes, potatoes and pork enough for four people at the Link markets, customers needed to pay an average of HK$66, compared to HK$61.5 at the government ones.

At the government’s Domain mall in Yau Tong, 81 per cent of the shops are chain stores with at least one more branch elsewhere, while the adjacent Lei Yue Mun Plaza run by the Link has 57 per cent.

At the Link’s Un Chau Shopping Centre in Cheung Sha Wan, around 85 per cent of the shops are chains, while at the government’s Hoi Lai Shopping Centre about half an hour walk from Un Chau, it is 61 per cent.

The Housing Authority also leases six of its 22 markets out to single operators. Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung told the Legislative Council in March that the government planned to apply the same approach on another 12 markets to be built in the next five years.

This has raised public concerns for its similarity to the Link’s model.

Vendors at the authority’s Tin Yan market in Tin Shui Wai, which is leased to Super Happy Investment Limited, said the company increased rent by 15 to 30 per cent when tenants renewed their contract every three years.

Super Happy also rents the market at Ching Long Shopping Centre in Kwun Tong, where tenants have complained about the company renting some stalls to its own businesses in an attempt to “fix prices”.

Yeung Yuk-yiu, managing director of Super Happy, said it raised rent by 30 per cent at Tin Yan at the end of 2013 based on the government’s evaluation of the premises.

An authority spokeswoman said the approach was to provide better choices, and single operators had the flexibility to select stall owners and set rents through negotiation.

She said the authority stopped single operators charging fees other than rent, as well as requiring them to ensure a certain proportion of food and miscellaneous trades. The HA will continue with the practice for all new markets, she added.

A future of no certainty

Professor Leo Sin Yat-ming, a marketing expert at Chinese University, said the government needed to bring in “competitive alternatives”, instead of merely setting up new malls and markets without proper management.

He said the single tenant policy could help operate the facilities in a more commercial way, but there needed to be more regulations, like a ban on sole operators letting to their own businesses.

“How can it be fair if you are the referee as well as the player?” Sin asked.

Sin also feared that the government’s pledge was “all talk” because he said there were not enough commercial spaces close to Link facilities.

Sophia So Lok-yee, of The Link Watch, said providing alternatives was only a “short-term relief”, because small tenants under the Link were still suffering. She called for the government to buy back the Link or become the trust’s majority shareholder, to have more of a say.

But Kwun Tong district councillor Chan Man-kin was less keen on buying back, because of the Link’s sky-high market value, which was almost four times what the government sold its properties for.

“It’s all taxpayers’ money, and I don’t think we can call it a good deal,” said Chan.