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Hong Kong housing

Carrie Lam sorry for ‘unfortunate’ anxiety after suggesting 800,000 public rental flats enough for Hong Kong

City leader describes furore as ‘unfortunate’ but concedes she’ll be more sensitive to public sentiment when talking about complicated policies in future

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2017, 11:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2017, 11:22pm

Hong Kong’s leader on Tuesday apologised amid criticism and confusion over her suggestion that 800,000 public rental flats would be sufficient to fulfil the housing demand of low-income families.

“For the unnecessary anxiety caused in society, I express my apology,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said before a weekly meeting with her cabinet.

Hundreds of subsidised flats set to go on sale in Tseung Kwan O and Tuen Mun

Lam described the furore as “unfortunate” and said her comment represented one line with one media organisation in an interview that lasted an hour.

The figure of 800,000 ... is definitely not a ceiling on what the government is willing to prepare
Chief Executive Carrie Lam

Yet she acknowledged that as chief executive, she should be more sensitive in explaining the philosophy behind a complicated policy.

The controversy erupted last week after Chinese-language Ming Pao published an interview with Lam highlighting her assessment that 800,000 units were enought to meet the demand of those seeking public flats to rent.

Her remarks had sparked fears the government would stop build­ing rental units after it reached that target, as part of its new emphasis on home ownership.

Two advisors who sat on the Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee in 2014 expressed reservations, while her political ally the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong party also launched a rare protest against any caps on rental housing.

Lam sought to clarify her remarks on Tuesday.

“The figure of 800,000 public rental units is not a target in terms of public rental housing construction,” she said. “It is definitely not a ceiling on what the government is willing to prepare, to produce for the people of Hong Kong. The 800,000 figure is no more than [us] taking stock of what we already have.”

She added there were 756,000 existing public rental flats and counted 44,000 “already in the pipeline”.

Lam said a number of other factors, including public reception to the Green Form Subsidised Home Ownership Scheme, would determine whether 800,000 rental units would be sufficient.

Her comments on Tuesday marked her second attempt at clarification. Lam on Friday explained that when the stock of public rental housing reached “a certain number, such as 800,000, it may be enough to meet the demand of the poorest families over a period”.

Some lawmakers on Monday said they suspected the number was just “made up”, while others claimed Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan had no clue where it came from.

Veteran Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kan-sun on Tuesday doubted Lam’s apology was mere a tactical retreat, urging her to take a full withdrawal of her remarks.

Lam appeared to score a win with the public on Tuesday as reception to subsidised homeownership seemed positive. Hundreds of people formed lines outside the Housing Society’s office on the opening day of two new housing projects’ show flats.

A total of 620 units will go on sale on November 7, at 30 per cent less than market rates. The price ranged from HK$1.92 million (US$246,000) for a one-bedroom unit in Tuen Mun to HK$6.23 million for a three-bedroom unit in Tseung Kwan O.

At a business forum later on Tuesday, Lam poured cold water over suggestions that the government lower land premiums for developers taking part in new subsidised housing initiatives for first-time home buyers, saying “we will have to find other means to ensure that this type of co-operation...will be a win-win”.