My Take

Action needed now on public housing

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 June, 2015, 1:16am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 June, 2015, 1:16am

When I grew up during the 1960s and 70s, many hillsides across Hong Kong were dotted with shanty towns. To resolve the massive housing problem, the colonial government made a brave commitment to make proper housing a basic right. Even so, the last of the temporary housing areas - run by the government for people waiting for public housing settlement - did not disappear until the mid-1990s.

Now, the housing problem, as evidenced by the rising number of families and single people living in subdivided flats, has come back with a vengeance.

A study by Chinese University researchers finds that such tenants are living in ever smaller space while rents constantly rise. Their average living space per person has dropped from 67.6 sq ft in 2013 to 47.8 sq ft while the average ratio of rent to income has jumped from 29 per cent to 41 per cent.

If we use the minimum size of 70 sq ft in public housing as standard, it means many if not most subdivided flat tenants are being violated in terms of their basic housing right.

The government of Tsang Yam-kuen pretended the problem didn't exist. Tsang's solution was: out of sight, out of mind.

Whatever you think about Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, his administration has made increasing the supply of housing, including public flats, a priority. But building flats takes time, and the current average waiting queue for a public flat is still 3.3 years, barely improved from the Tsang years. The queue has more than quarter of a million applicants.

The government must recognise it still has responsibility when applicants are waiting for public housing. What to do?

It's time to bring back temporary housing areas, which should be either free or charge only a nominal rent. In addition, the Urban Renewal Authority has hundreds of vacant flats waiting for redevelopment. These can be served as temporary flats.

Since the 1997 handover, the government has tried to either privatise or seek quasi-market solutions to housing, education, and health care.

Far more than full democracy, I would argue it's more important to revive the laudable colonial policies of setting minimum public service standards in those three areas of livelihood as basic rights.