The programme to provide homes to Hong Kong's people has played a vital role in the city's modernisation The public housing programme has been a pillar of support over the past 50 years in Hong Kong's dramatic economic growth - expanding and accompanying the territory's transformation from a backwater entrepot into a thriving and modern international city. Some scholars have attributed Hong Kong's success to the role public housing has played in keeping costs down in Hong Kong's dash to modernise. By whatever measure, public housing in Hong Kong has traversed a vast terrain, in more than one sense. In spatial terms, it has spread from urban areas to far-flung territories and islands in the special administrative region. From the standpoints of scale, complexity and social impact, public housing has become a way of life for more than half the territory's population. The history of public housing in Hong Kong is more than a record of a government and people struggling to solve the problem of shelter for the benefit of as many as possible. It is also a reflection of how, over time, this sector has grown larger, more political and more challenging, according to Professor Yeung Yue-man, director of the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. In a sense, the history of public housing is analogous to the growth of the Hong Kong economy and the community itself. In successfully developing public housing on a large scale, the government has solved the problem of providing shelter for its population. At the same time, public housing has been employed as a powerful agent for economic, political and social change. It is a bedrock, holding labour costs down, stabilising society and allowing the community to move ahead. Professor Yeung says the achievement of Hong Kong's massive public housing programme has not simply been the provision of decent accommodation for families in need; it has also greatly contributed to the economic development and social well-being of the special administrative region. More than 50 per cent of the population live in public rental housing and subsidised flats under the Home Ownership Scheme (HOS). The success of the public housing programme in Hong Kong is by no means an accident, although its beginnings can be traced back to an accident. A disastrous fire in the Shek Kip Mei squatter area in the early 1950s left 53,000 squatters homeless overnight. As an emergency measure, the government built resettlement blocks nearby to rehouse those affected by the fire. And so began a public housing programme that would grow greatly over the following decades. Professor Yeung says housing policy should be sensitive and responsive to the changing needs and aspirations of the Hong Kong community. Public housing policy in Hong Kong has undergone gradual and, at times, substantial changes in direction and focus over the past 50 years. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, the greatest need was to provide a large number of rental housing units with basic facilities to accommodate people cleared from squatter areas, families left homeless by fires, and those with low incomes. The provision of public flats expanded significantly in the 1970s under a large-scale 10-year housing programme. From the late 1970s onwards, improved economic conditions in Hong Kong led to rising expectations. There was a demand for improved living conditions and growing aspirations among people to own rather than rent. In response, the government steadily upgraded the standard of public rental housing and provided new opportunities for assisted home ownership. The HOS was set up in 1976, giving a new dimension to housing development in the public sector. Over the years, the government has put in a great deal of effort to reform and improve the programme of developing public housing. A comprehensive review of the programme was undertaken in 1987 in accordance with projections on population trends and housing demand and supply. The government published a white paper on long-term housing strategy in 1998. The institutional framework for public housing was reviewed last year to streamline operations and clarify the roles and responsibilities of the various public housing bodies. The public housing programme has become increasingly participatory in terms of input from residents and the public at large. Construction and management of the estates has also gradually become more professional. It is a record of remarkable achievements, reflecting a high degree of success in physical planning, administrative efficiency and financial management. Hong Kong has progressed in 50 years in the development of its public housing from an emergency programme with a narrow focus on construction speed and low rents at the expense of quality to a more unified policy approach with an accent on quality and targeted perspectives.