The elderly must be offered more suitable private-sector housing
Hong Kong’s over 65-year-olds are expected to number 2.28 million by 2034, and account for 30 per cent of the population
According to government statistics, there were around 1.13 million Hong Kong people aged 65 or above in 2015.
By 2034, that elderly population is expected to rise to 2.28 million, and account for approximately 30 per cent of the then population.
Undeniably, an ageing population is a severe social problem in Hong Kong.
The government’s fundamental elderly care policy is “ageing in place as the core, institutional care as back-up”.
Current elderly social service expenditure, however, seems to be mainly focused on establishing more Care and Attention Homes for elderly people suffering from mental or physical disabilities.
Contrarily, the government appears to be failing to create a better living environment for the more active and healthy elderly people, when implementing that policy.
The Hong Kong Housing Authority and Housing Society (HKHS) have continued to provide public rental housing and tailor-made homes for those elderly who meet the income and assets criteria.
However, spaces in these units are limited in both quantity and coverage and the gap between supply and demand is expected to widen dramatically in future.
It is now necessary to review the elderly policy including the measures adopted, resource distribution and cost effectiveness.
In addition, there are no such housing units available in the private property market.
Over the years, some private developers have shown interest in developing Age Friendly Housing and set up elderly care service networks.
But few of these projects ever got off the ground for various reasons, including unclear regulatory guidelines and requirements, but more pointedly a lack of government encouragement.
To address the issue, I have invited professionals from different sectors to set up an “Age Friendly Housing and Related Provisions Task Force” to focus on ways to encourage their development.
The Task Force suggested that private developers can take reference from the “Harmony Place” introduced by the HKHS.
That development merges regular domestic units with elderly flats, setting Age Friendly Housing Units on lower floors while relatives or family members can select higher floors or neighbouring estate units.
Family members can take care of their elderly relatives more conveniently, while all can live in separate units.
To encourage private developers to build Age Friendly Housing, there are several main issues needing to be addressed.
First, we should give a clear definition to what is Age Friendly Housing, and what appropriate facilities need to be provided.
The Hong Kong Planning Standards and Guidelines set out standards for many facilities by referencing to the estimated population, structure or character of each region.
No such provision and definition in the guidelines are given, however, for Age Friendly Housing.
It is essential the government review the current standards, and provide appropriate guidelines to bureaus in formulating appropriate policies and measures.
Age Friendly Housing Units are similar to regular houses in nature, but can be made even more suitable for the elderly with customised designs.
These developments should be allowed on sites earmarked for residential use in the Outlined Zoning Plan. Moreover, for sites zoned for GIC purpose where building of Age Friendly Housing may be allowed, no such use is included in Column 1 in the Notes, due to a lack of definition.
All these create uncertainties, which in turn would hinder the developments.
Second, in future government residential land sales, lease modifications or land-exchange cases with site areas in excess of 5,000 square meters, conditions should be imposed in the land lease requiring developments have no less than 30 per cent of the gross floor areas designed for Age Friendly Housing.
Other relevant lease conditions such as those relating to the Deed of Mutual Covenants should also be suitably worded to facilitate such provision.
And third, the existing Building Planning Regulation and Disability Discrimination Ordinance does not include any specific provision for the elderly, and the Design Manual: Barrier Free Access 2008 should be updated and extended to designs relating to the internal parts of houses.
The following are some suggestions on the designs put forward by the Task Force:
In public areas:
1.Provide wider lifts and corridors to allow cots to rotate in case of emergency.
2.Equip fire escapes with sound devices and flash lights to help the elderly be more aware of their location and escape routes.
3.Install sprinkler system to slow the spread of fire and provide more time for the elderly to escape.
And inside areas:
1.Should use levers as door handles instead of gripping doorknobs, easier for elderly residents to use.
2.Install walk-in showers with seats and handles, instead of bathtubs for easy accessibility.
3.Build cross-ventilating windows to enhance natural ventilation.
Providing specific infrastructure and facilities in private developments for the elderly might increase construction costs as well as require extra gross floor areas, which might result in lower financial returns.
To ease the burden, the government may refer to its experiences gained in promoting “Green and Innovative Buildings” to allow certain area exemptions related to public areas or facilities.
Moreover, the granting of incentives such as tax reductions should also be considered.
The Task Force’s proposals would relate to the work of at least five bureaus , but it is difficult to confirm which particular one should be the most appropriate to push it forward.
Perhaps, the government should consider setting up a special committee to decide the matter.
It is accepted that the problems of an ageing population cannot be solved overnight and require co-ordination among different bureaus and departments.
However, no one can deny that we have a pressing need for a long-term population policy.
Growing old is an unavoidable and unchangeable part of the life cycle, and best we can do is prepare well for it.
Tony Tse Wai Chuen is the Legislative Council member representing architecture, surveying and planning.