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Leung Chun-ying

John Tsang’s bold election pledge on public housing unrealistic, CY Leung says

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 February, 2017, 11:31am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 February, 2017, 10:16am

In his strongest public criticism yet of the popular underdog in Hong Kong’s leadership election, outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has questioned John Tsang Chun-wah’s pledge to provide public housing for 60 per cent of the city’s population.

Leung attacked Tsang a day after the former finance minister published his manifesto setting his goal of tackling the housing shortage through more efficient land use and redevelopment of old public estates.

Such a goal would force the government to use all available land for public housing and sell none to private developers, Leung cautioned yesterday.

“Property prices and rent will only be driven up if the government sells no lands to the private sector,” he said. “It would eventually push those who used to be able to afford buying or renting private flats to queue up for public housing.”

Citing the incumbent administration’s goal of providing 460,000 new flats in a decade, Leung said 60 per cent would be public housing, with the rest private housing.

It was a “clear and scientific goal”, he said, compared with Tsang’s pledge to put 60 per cent of Hongkongers in public flats.

In 2015, the proportion of Hongkongers living in public sector permanent housing, including public rental flats and subsidised home ownership flats, was 45.6 per cent.

“I am sure society would like to see Tsang explain whether his administration would indeed sell no land for private housing in order to get more Hongkongers living in public housing,” he said.

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Stanley Wong Yuen-fai, who chairs the Housing Authority’s subsidised housing committee, said setting a population target for public housing was neither feasible nor appropriate to fix the city’s pressing housing problems, which have regularly been identified as the biggest source of dissatisfaction with the government.

With a current stock of about 1.15 million flats – both public rental and subsidised housing ­– Wong estimated that anywhere from 500,000 to 600,000 additional public flats would have to be built over the next 10 years if Tsang’s goal of housing 60 per cent of the population in the public system were to be met.

The rough calculation is based on the expected population growth over the next decade to 8.5 million people and a current average household size of 2.9 people per public flat. Based on such parameters, 60 per cent of the population in a decade would amount to about five million people, requiring at least 1.6 million homes.

The government’s current total housing supply target is 460,000 flats for the next decade: 280,000 for public housing and 180,000 for private housing, at a ratio of 60:40. The 280,000 additional public housing flats would only take the total public housing stock to about 1.4 million.

But Wong, who was a member of the government’s Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee that helped devise the official targets in 2014, said even if, hypothetically, all the 460,000 flats were public and private supply was tapered, the target would probably still fall short and also prove economically unfeasible.

“Ideally, it might work. But realistically you can’t ignore the private market because if private supply stops, home prices will skyrocket to frightening levels,” he said.

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A source familiar with the government’s housing policy said it would take 30 years for Tsang to meet his target if the public-to-private housing supply ratio was switched from 60:40 to 80:20.

Tsang was quick to respond, saying his housing plan was a long-term target he hoped to achieve in the long run, without providing an exact time frame.

“Of course, the supply of land has to be increased in future to meet the target,” he said. “The demand for housing in Hong Kong is very large, and the target cannot be achieved in one day.”

Leung’s criticism contrasted sharply with his praise for Tsang’s arch rival in the leadership race, former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. She is widely seen as Beijing’s preferred choice, although Tsang currently enjoys greater public support.

Leung described her as “an accountable and capable minister” who “has been willing to tackle problems that had accumulated in the city for a long time”.