How much longer does Hong Kong have to wait for an integrated housing strategy?
The chief executive promised in the lead up to her election both leadership and brave decisions, and housing is precisely the area in which Hongkongers expect action and initiatives
I think it is generally well known that I actively supported Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor during her election campaign and considered that her manifesto sought to address many of the livelihood issues that have vexed Hong Kong over the last few years.
Not least I agreed with her plans to address the entrenched challenges of inadequate housing supply and the issues surrounding choice and affordability that flow from previous failures to resolve these problems.
To be fair, much of the work undertaken by the administration during its first 12 months in office has been to tackle the chief executive’s social agenda and to address inequalities which have been the source of grievance within the community for some time. However, I do not believe that we are going to solve the challenges surrounding housing simply by identifying new possible sources of land supply.
Indeed I have questioned from the outset the need for a special task force to establish what the options might be and, even more particularly, for the community to be asked to decide as to which of these the government should adopt. I consider that the options are, and have been, evident from the start, namely a combination of reclamation outside the harbour, brownfield conversion and partnership with the private sector. Reclamation has proved a viable option in the past, albeit it will need to be undertaken in less sensitive areas and with due respect for the environment and sustainability. Addressing the proliferation of brownfield sites is something that the government should have taken on before now as it is a necessity beyond housing and is within their administrative purview. Cooperation with the private sector in securing the release of agricultural land in the New Territories and using this as an opportunity to provide a much more varied mix of housing types, including affordable housing, is clearly part of the way forward with the ultimate sanction of resumption if the development community fails to come to the party.
The chief executive promised in the lead up to her election both leadership and brave decisions and this is precisely the area in which the community expect action and initiatives from her and her team.
Granted, there is a need for her to carry with her the majority of the community and this will not be easy given that it is already clear that there are serious divides within society as to the scale and extent of any potential solutions, and so it will require a very determined approach to delivery.
The reality, however, is that Hong Kong’s housing challenge is not only about land supply. It is far more complex, involving realistic population projections, priority for those in real need, choices that meet affordability levels, provision for cross generational needs, a much clearer distinction as to the levels of assistance that the government should provide, that is, a distinction between wants and needs and a clear understanding in the community that this is a medium to long-term challenge and not something that can be solved in the next couple of years. The provision of new infrastructure, zoning and planning changes and modification to lease terms are in many cases necessary and all will take time to resolve.
In reality the situation requires a fresh, all embracing housing strategy which encompasses short, mid and long term solutions, including the provision of housing for both rental and for sale and taking into consideration cultural aspirations – the drive towards ownership.
Attempts at implementation are also too fragmented and piecemeal at the moment, with the misconception that provision of more land, from a practical perspective, can only be a modest way in the short and medium term to resolve the city’s affordability dilemma.
Perhaps ultimately, we should only be providing social housing for those who can demonstrate genuine need, leaving the remainder to the private sector, albeit within a much more structured regime of delivery models that provides the range of choices currently not available in the market. This is not about collusion but about adopting and implementing an approach which can deliver what the community claims it wants – more, better, varied and accessible homes – or, more cynically perhaps, and for some, a greater opportunity to make money.
I appreciate that none of this is easy but we do need some signals that the chief executive and her administration are looking beyond the present land supply debate for a more integrated and long-term strategic solution, accompanied by appropriate policy initiatives.
Nicholas Brooke is chairman of Professional Property Services Group.