Hong Kong still has plenty of wasted space to solve its housing woes

The ageing container port, Cyberport, Disney Park, Gleneagles Hospital: flatten the lot and build bigger and more affordable homes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 6:34pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 11:53pm

The real embarrassment for Hong Kong is not that statistics have fallen to 2.8 persons per public flat but that in a rich city like Hong Kong the average public housing tenant shares only 142 sq ft of living space … If we want to house our people with more dignity and narrow this gap, we must reclaim more land and build many more and bigger flats. It is as simple as that.

– Nelson Wong, vice-chairman, Business and Professionals Federation of Hong Kong, in SCMP’s “Letters to the editor”, November 15, 2017

He is absolutely right about the crowding. It is an embarrassment for Hong Kong that in one of the world’s richest cities all but a very few people should have to live in shoeboxes. Why have we not done better?

I think this is actually a different question from the one about housing shortages. We still had a serious shortage as late as the 1970s with more than 15 per cent of the population living in squatter shacks.

But only a handful of permanent ID card holders do not now have a formal roof over their heads.

Let’s agree here that our government cannot be responsible for housing everyone who takes a fancy to living in Hong Kong. I sympathise with the miseries of people in sub-divided flats but most are not recognised permanent residents.

The key question is more one of housing aspirations. People no longer want to live with their parents, family sizes have grown smaller and unhappy couples want to move out. Household sizes have fallen steadily. In public rental housing it has gone down from 4.4 persons per household in 1990 to about 2.8 at present.

And we have come a long way to meeting people’s aspirations for more space. The rule for public housing tenants used to be 60 square feet per person. Mr Wong’s figure of 142 square feet is already a huge advance over this ratio.

But most people seem to think it true that we are running out of easy housing estate sites and must look to the country parks and/or reclamation if the ratio of space per person is to continue rising to standards that accord with our wealth,

I am not so sure, however, this need is yet upon us. The basic difficulty is our government, for all its pledges on housing, in fact much prefers infrastructure projects of marginal or declining value and wasteful industrial or social use of land.

Take our container port as an example. About 80 per cent of export throughput now consists of transshipment and this business will be gone when the rapidly growing ports across the border convinces Beijing to abandon rules forbidding foreign ships from carrying cargo directly between mainland ports.

If our port has not yet passed its sell-by date the clock is ticking fast. We are talking here of an ideal fully serviced waterfront development site on which we can build hundreds of thousands of flats. Let’s stick this into the plans.

And why are we under obligation to continue amusing mainland tourists with a financially dubious Disney Park when Disney has undermined it with another in Shanghai? Little of the money that flows through it stays here. That’s 28 hectares going on 50 in expansion plans. I see a superb housing site.

Then take Cyberport, smaller but even less used. My wife and I go there to see movies as we always have our choice of seats. “Cyberia”, we call it. The place echoes from emptiness. I suspect the commercial tenants are now paid to stay. This was a misconceived project for the site. We got it wrong. Let’s get it right.

Ditto Science Park. App-writers are not hi-tech. Most tenants are distinctly low-tech. Let’s make better use of the site. Let’s have housing.

Ditto all of Donald bow-tie’s misconceived ambitions as chief executive for new industrial pillars. Hello, Gleneagles Hospital. May we count your patients? Hello, Harrow International School. How many Hong Kong kids do you have in your classrooms?

There may indeed come a time when demand for more space per person can only be met by more reclamation – but we are not there yet. We still have plenty of wasted space to put to better use.