Hong Kong has enough money and land, but no guts or will to solve its housing crisis

Yonden Lhatoo laments the profit-before-people mentality and weak governance that have allowed a basic right to become an unaffordable luxury

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 May, 2016, 8:26pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 9:29am

I feel sorry for Hong Kong people when it comes to housing. They really have a raw deal, thanks to greedy landlords, unscrupulous property developers and gutless governance.

You would think such a basic necessity as having a roof over your head would be a given in one of the most prosperous cities in the world, but not here. Most Hongkongers can only dream of owning a flat, and even those who do, unless they’re wealthy, are mostly cooped up in tiny little pigeon holes that pass for homes.

Cramming a family of six into 400 square feet would be seen as a human-rights violation in most advanced societies, but, here, it’s the norm. That’s why developers are able to market a 180 sq ft flat for HK$4 million without triggering a riot or a revolution.

You may want to note, though, that when we did have a riot back in February, in Mong Kok, people finally began to realise an inconvenient truth. There are a lot of genuinely frustrated Young Turks out there, and much of their anger stems from our city’s shocking wealth gap, lack of upward mobility for the have-nots, and, yes, the prospect of a lifelong struggle to own or rent a home.

Half of Hong Kong’s population of more than seven million is forced to live in cheap, public rental units or some form of subsidised housing. And even that is a privilege to be won through lotteries or years on the waiting list.

The cost to Hong Kong’s social fabric has been evident for decades, from stunted development of children to domestic violence. But it’s the impact on the elderly, and its consequence on family values, that I find the most poignant.

In Western societies, shipping off an elderly parent to a nice care home to be looked after by nursing professionals round the clock may make perfect sense, but in Asian culture, it’s a traumatising prospect.

I come from a poverty-stricken part of the world, and we look after our parents and elderly relatives right until the end. Our senior citizens live and die in the homes they've built for themselves and passed on to their children, who in turn would never dream of sending them away.

Here in Hong Kong, where traditional Chinese family values are just as strong, people have no choice. There’s simply no room, and no one to look after the elderly at home because everyone is out working to pay the rent or mortgage.

At the last official count, more than two million people, or about 29 per cent of the population, was living in public rental flats. And well over half a million of them were aged 60 or above – about 37 per cent of the elderly demographic.

Let’s be clear about one thing here: there is enough land and money in Hong Kong, both in the hands of our government and tycoons, to house every citizen in dignity and relative comfort. All the rest is eyewash, propaganda and downright deception.

To begin with, developers have been hoarding land for decades – three property giants now hold 90 million sq ft in their land banks – and releasing new flats into the market as and when they feel like it. Given how morally reprehensible that is, it should be a criminal offence, but, hey, that’s what a free market is all about.

In Singapore, an iron-willed government on a nation-building mission made housing a non-issue, forcing tycoons to contribute by parting with their land banks and then mass-building subsidised homes. You can only dream of that happening in Hong Kong, much as we like to compare ourselves with the Lion City while falling behind it in almost every aspect of progress.

Something like that would require a government with guts and political conviction, and tycoons generous enough to settle for a reasonable rate of return instead of the usual mega profits. It’s never going to happen here.

What a crying shame.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post