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Obituaries

Our city owes much to Michael Wright

The late colonial civil servant was dubbed the “father of public housing”, initiating the concept of a dignified living for tenants – a unit with independent bathroom and kitchen. But as the pressure on public housing mounts, the government must step up efforts to meet rising demand

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 February, 2018, 12:55am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 February, 2018, 12:55am

Michael Wright may not be a name well recognised by Hongkongers nowadays. But the late colonial civil servant rightfully earned a place in the city’s history. Dubbed the “father of public housing”, he was the one who initiated the concept of a dignified living for tenants – a unit with independent bathroom and kitchen. The design, known as the “Wright principle”, is still in use today. A public housing estate in Tai Hang was even named after his name in Chinese.

That explains why when the former director of public works died in London last week, aged 105, the news was greeted with a sense of nostalgia and some soul searching here.

Hong Kong’s ‘father of public housing’ Michael Wright dies aged 105

In an interview a few years ago, the Hong Kong-born, British-educated architect was not particularly impressed when asked about the modern buildings in the city. Yet he must have been pleased to see how public housing had evolved by leaps and bounds over the decades. Nowadays, all units come with independent toilets and kitchens, many of which are nicely designed. Ironically, the flats are also more spacious than many nano-flats in the private market.

The improvements in public housing owe much to our sustained economic development over the years. But the credit also goes to successive governments, whose housing commitments and foresights have benefited generations of tenants who cannot afford private housing. Currently, about three in 10 people live in public housing. The government is the city’s biggest landlord, managing a stock of some 789,300 units for 2.14 million people.

Hong Kong’s ‘father of public housing’ recalls POW camp life and the city’s challenges in 1960s

The task does not just end here, though. By March 2016, there were as many as 150,500 applications for public housing, with an average waiting time of up to 3.9 years. The queue is even longer when taking into account the non-elderly, one-person applications.

Long gone is the time when people only expected the government to provide them with a roof above the head. The pressure on public housing will only grow as more families are priced out of the runaway private property market. The government must step up efforts to meet the rising demand for affordable housing.