The supposedly defunct Home Ownership Scheme, the subsidised-flats purchasing system that was halted in 2002 to help stem the decline in the property market, still refuses to lie down.
Housing Authority members were divided yesterday on whether to revive the scheme to meet the needs of middle-income earners shut out of the private market by rising prices. It was the most heated issue among 26 members of the authority at a meeting to discuss development of the public housing system in the coming year.
Despite doubts about recovery from last year's financial crisis and the fact that the market - apart from luxury flats - remains well below its peaks, members of the Democratic Party and the Federation of Trade Unions all backed reviving the scheme.
Authority member Wong Kwok-kin, of the Federation of Trade Unions, said there were more than 80,000 'sandwich-class' households in the city, who were not eligible for public rental flats but could not afford to buy private flats.
'The Home Ownership Scheme is the only way to help them own a flat, as housing prices are going up fast.'
Other members, including Patrick Lau Sau-shing, said it would be hard to find suitable places to erect HOS blocks. because of a land shortage.
His opinion was shared by authority member Alice Lam Chui-lin, who said most HOS applicants preferred to buy a permanent home in the urban areas.
When the Housing Authority halted the subsidised housing scheme, thousands of flats were left unsold. In 2007, it began to sell the surplus, and the next phase of sales will start tomorrow, offering about 1,400 flats. The authority said it would reflect members' opinions on the issue to the Housing Department.
The HOS issue was also raised during a Legislative Council motion debate on the policy address.
Miriam Lau Kin-yee of the Liberal Party said that while she was concerned about property prices, this should be resolved by reviewing the land-sales mechanism, not by building more subsidised flats. 'The government once declared that the HOS scheme had completed its historic mission. It should not let people think it goes back on its word,' she said, recalling the calamitous effect of former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa's policy of constructing 85,000 flats a year to cool the market, which later collapsed.
Chan Kam-lam, a Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong lawmaker, suggested the government not only resume the construction of HOS flats, but also suggested widening the eligibility criteria.
Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Wing-tat said that in the past 18 months prices for old flats had risen by 50 per cent. 'When the economy is bad, people don't mind eating less well and refraining from buying nice clothes, but they still hope to be able to return to a comfortable home,' he said.