My Take

Turning back the clock on public housing

Two schemes to provide housing for Hong Kong families awaiting public rental units are no more than a stopgap solution. Let’s hope families will not be stuck in them for too long, but the temporary housing areas introduced under the colonial government sure lasted a long time

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 September, 2017, 9:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 September, 2017, 9:15pm

It seems like only yesterday that Hong Kong got rid of the last of its temporary housing areas (THAs) for people queuing for homes on public estates. Now we are turning back the clock. So much for progress!

In a sign of how desperate and dire our housing situation is, two initiatives have been introduced as a stopgap solution for families before they are allocated public rental units. The government can claim it’s not directly involved, because the Hong Kong Council of Social Service will be running both schemes, but the council has its full support, including direct subsidies.

The first scheme will provide, for three years, 500 old but standardised flats to be shared by about 1,000 families. It offers an affordable alternative to overpriced but substandard subdivided units on the market. The scheme’s flats are provided by private developers as an act of charity.

Hong Kong prefabricated home trials to be launched at HKU

Interestingly, one of them is well known for its aggressive tactics when it comes to redeveloping old blocks.

Another plan, also run by the council, is to build temporary homes from modified cargo containers stacked against, and on top of, each other to form a housing block. Prefabricated containers are also an option.

Under the Brits, units made of wooden frames and zinc plates were built for temporary housing. Conditions were notorious, especially during the cold winter and hot summer. Such housing areas were phased out in the 1990s, though the last of them was not demolished until the early 2000s. Maybe technologies and designs have much improved since then, but it doesn’t strike me that converted cargo containers would be any more comfortable than a wood-and-zinc housing unit.

Three families at most per flat in new Hong Kong shared housing plan

We are in this terrible predicament mostly because of misguided housing and land policies pursued under the first two administrations of the Hong Kong SAR. The cancellation of 85,000 new flats per year was followed by a decade-long suspension of the subsidised housing scheme and a deeply flawed land auction system that has, even now, maintained a stubbornly high land premium.

We have had to live with their consequences in this decade, and we may need a comparable amount of time, if not longer, to return to normal housing market conditions.

The latest solutions are no more than Band-Aid. Let’s just hope families to be assigned those new units will not be stuck in them for too long. THAs, supposedly temporary, sure lasted a long time.