Flats will keep shrinking until Hong Kong’s government changes course

Peter Kammerer says that the government’s role in Hong Kong’s out-of-control flat prices is clear, and until it changes policy on land revenue, living spaces will remain a race to the bottom 

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 April, 2018, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 April, 2018, 8:41pm

Hong Kong’s new flats are getting ever smaller, a consequence of a shortage of land. It’s simple enough arithmetic – the population is growing at a rate of 0.6 per cent a year and the area available to build on isn’t keeping pace, so a few more square feet in living space has to be sacrificed.

Where once the idea of moving into a microflat of 200 square feet or less would have been scoffed at, now it’s gaining popularity. That’s a bit small by my standards, but I’ve come to appreciate that bigger isn’t better.

Housing prices that are the world’s highest inevitably mean that property developers are going to give people what they demand. Hongkongers dream of owning a flat, a place to call their own that is equally somewhere to live and an investment. The result is that homes are being made affordable by shrinking their area. Developers love the idea as they can squeeze more flats into a building and charge more per square foot than even for luxury units.

How small can a Hong Kong flat get? This builder is aiming for 123 sq ft

It shouldn’t be this way – if only the government could shake itself from its reliance on keeping land prices high as its main means of revenue.

Sustainable land use policy for the New Territories would also greatly help. It’s debatable whether so much area needs to be set aside for country parks that were once essential for water catchment, but are no longer needed for that purpose as supplies mostly come from the mainland. But until authorities change their mindset, we’re stuck with having to think and buy small.

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Research published recently by Our Hong Kong Foundation, a think tank founded by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, projects a dramatic drop in living space in the coming years. The average size of private flats in the past decade was 833 sq ft, but those completed between now and 2022 will be just 681 sq ft. Flats of less than 430 sq ft – the size of two-thirds of our city’s nearly 800,000 public housing units – are expected to account for 45 per cent of all private homes next year. 

That’s a nine-fold increase on the figure for 2010 and compares with the average of 1,100 sq ft for a flat in Singapore and 643 sq ft in Tokyo. Put in a square footage per person, Hong Kong’s average living space is 170 sq ft, a quarter of that for Tokyo and 60 per cent less than Singapore.

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At 190 centimetres tall, I’m not about to push the idea that 170 sq ft is enough for a person to live in; my bed alone takes up one-fifth of that space. But I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of compact living, with such space requiring less effort to maintain and clean, while ensuring that personal possessions are kept to a minimum.

About to embark on the daunting task of emptying my mother’s 2,400-sq ft house in Australia of its contents, I am only too aware that the bigger the home, the greater the possibility of unnecessary and wasteful hoarding.

My ideal flat size is 400 sq ft usable area for a single person, 550 sq ft for a couple and 700 sq ft for a family of three, give or take a few tens of sq ft. These are just my personal feelings and minimums are up for debate. 

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Of course, important factors like natural lighting, nearness to other buildings, ambient noise levels and views from windows have to be taken into account to ensure psychological well-being. The size would seem shockingly small to Westerners and is certainly a joke to Singaporeans. But put in the context of Hong Kong, it is reasonable.

Making it affordable to the average Hongkonger in the present climate of tight land supply is quite another matter. If only we had a government that put the needs of the majority of the population ahead of those of vested interests and was willing to overhaul its outdated policies. 

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post