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Hong Kong housing

Hong Kong’s housing crisis calls for a comprehensive plan, not pocketing money from private clubs

Paul Yip says the government’s decision to charge private sports clubs more to lease land will achieve little; Hong Kong needs a holistic housing plan rather than piecemeal measures

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 March, 2018, 2:52pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 March, 2018, 2:52pm

The decision by Hong Kong’s Home Affairs Department to charge private sports clubs one-third of the market value of their land to renew their leases totally misses the point. The additional cost to these elite clubs is minimal as their steep membership fees will enable them to find the money in no time. Moreover, the government does not lack funds. Hence, the whole exercise achieves nothing. Rather, it is very disappointing as it misses an opportunity to rectify the serious lack of space facing people in Hong Kong.

Housing prices have been on the rise for the past 22 months, with a 200 square foot flat now costing more than HK$7 million. It is the shortage of space, whether private or open space, that the government must make a genuine effort to tackle.

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Better-than-expected land premiums have contributed to the government’s huge surplus. Property developers can afford the high upfront payments they make to the government when buying land by passing the cost on to the people purchasing their flats. Thus, both the government and private developers make a profit at the expense of Hongkongers’ quality of life.

The unaffordable housing prices have distorted the lives of many, creating a false sense of wealth among homeowners because they will have to face the soaring prices at some point, if they need to upgrade to a larger home, for example. Home ownership has not increased in the past decade, remaining at about 50 per cent, and the average living space is still about the same, if not worse – less than 500 sq ft for an average household. At the same time, the rate of mortgage payments relative to household income is increasing, leaving families with less disposable income. Hong Kong workers who need to pay the mortgage resort to working long hours and making compromises to survive.

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On a recent visit to Australia, I observed that housing prices there are also becoming unaffordable, but there are a few initiatives in certain communities to make housing cheaper for middle-income earners, such as a programme to attract investment for the construction of affordable housing, similar to our Home-Ownership Scheme. I met some recent migrants who left Hong Kong to settle in Australia simply to provide a better living environment for their children. One of the major attractions is more open areas and bigger living space. Housing prices in Australia are still relatively cheap compared with Hong Kong.

It would take a person earning an average salary about 10 years to pay off a mortgage on a medium-sized home in Australia whereas, in Hong Kong, it would take 19 years. This leaves families in Australia with more disposable income. The average Australian worker enjoys a higher salary than his or her counterpart in Hong Kong, despite paying higher taxes. Furthermore, redistribution of wealth through the tax and pension system makes society more equal. The latest Australian income statistics show that low-income earners have seen a higher salary improvement than other earners. 

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Back in Hong Kong, the government could consider making private clubs open more to the public and redeploying the additional income from the new charges to improving the accessibility and affordability of public facilities. For example, the government could provide free entry to swimming pools and others leisure facilities to compensate for the lack of private space.

Unfortunately, we have yet to see a comprehensive and feasible plan. The patience of Hong Kong people is wearing thin in the face of the absence of any genuine government effort to improve the affordability of housing, quality of life and prospects for our youth. It is time for some effective measures to be implemented to meet people’s concerns.

Paul Yip is chair professor in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at The University of Hong Kong