Carrie Lam should rethink her flawed ideas on housing

Rather than focusing on the rate of home ownership, Hong Kong’s leader should instead turn her attention to meeting the demand for affordable public rental and subsidised housing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 November, 2017, 12:40am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 November, 2017, 12:40am

Among Hong Kong people, “85,000” has become a bad joke that epitomised the bungled housing policy of the city’s first chief executive. Tung Chee-hwa promised adequate housing supply by that number every year but ended up drastically reducing it, thereby contributing to our current predicament.

Let’s hope “800,000” won’t become another symbolic failure, this time of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s ambitions to boost Hong Kong’s housing supply. By saying, in an interview with a newspaper, that 800,000 public housing units were enough for the city, Lam managed to draw flak from all sides. She quickly backtracked, claiming the age-old excuse of being misquoted.

“It was an hour-long interview on a complicated issue,” she said by way of an apology. “We shouldn’t oversimplify with just a headline number.”

Helping more Hongkongers own a home should be Carrie Lam’s goal – not creating more dependency

The thing is, housing policy isn’t rocket science. The public doesn’t need to be told that it’s complicated. What it needs, instead, is a clear direction from the government on how it aims to meet housing demand and make homes affordable.

If “800,000” was meant as a cap on public housing supply, we would be in trouble. We already have 760,000 units. So 40,000 more would meet Lam’s target. But that’s clearly absurd, because there are 277,800 applications in the queue for public rental housing, with an average waiting time of 4.7 years. A million public housing units may be more realistic.

An 800,000 limit may not exactly be Lam’s goal, but having a cap on public units is consistent with her policy ambitions. That’s why so many people are alarmed despite her “apology”. About half of Hong Kong people own their homes. Lam thinks that’s too low and wants to boost the home ownership rate to 70 per cent in 10 years.

While she has not explicitly formulated it, this sounds like her plan: once a public housing cap is reached, the government will focus on building subsidised housing for the “sandwich class” to boost home ownership. “Wealthy” public housing tenants – those with assets exceeding the allowable limits – will be encouraged to buy subsidised housing, thereby vacating their rental units for those currently in the queue.

If you are not convinced, many others are not, either. The home ownership rate is hardly our most pressing problem. Arguably it’s not even a problem, but a matter of ideological preference. What the government should do is focus on building enough rental and subsidised flats until demand is met.