Stop subsidising the rich with cheap land rents

  • The Lands Department has finally released records of short-term leases of public land
  • Among those paying as little as HK$2.29 per square foot on these leases are some of the city’s best known tycoons and their children, as well as wealthy politicians
PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2018, 6:10pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 December, 2018, 10:38pm

Hong Kong’s high rents, it seems, are only for ordinary people. If you are very rich, it could be extremely cheap, not relatively, but in absolute dollar terms.

After years of criticism, the Lands Department has finally released records of short-term leases of public land. There are 5,407 cases, taking up 2,458 hectares. Aren’t we supposed to be short of land for housing? In any case, they make for extremely instructive reading.

Among those who rent public land are some of the city’s best known tycoons and their children, as well as wealthy politicians. Since the department only publishes the addresses but not personal details, their identities have to be, to some extent, guesswork.

Many lease the land surrounding their already considerable estates to build swimming pools, gardens and children’s playgrounds. “Short-term” is a misnomer because some of those leases can be renewed indefinitely, not just for years, but a decade or two.

How much do they pay, you ask? Well, the daughter of a famous tycoon leases 13,700 sq ft of land next to her huge estate for the grand total of HK$31,653 a month, or HK$2.29 per square foot. A former legislator occupies about 10,000 sq ft for a monthly sum of HK$29,511, or HK$2.77 per square foot.

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Now there are inevitably government lands that are left idle, so why not lease them if there are takers and receive a steady revenue stream for the public coffers? And of course, not all such lands are leased to wealthy people. Still, many cases seem to involve people and families who don’t need the land but can afford to rent them for pleasure.

This begs the question: is the government charging too little? The department needs to explain how it sets the rents relative to market prices. Otherwise, it just looks like the government is subsidising the wealthy for their own leisure.

In a busy district, a derelict partitioned unit of 150 sq ft could cost HK$6,000 a month, or HK$40 per sq ft. Waiting time for public housing is now 5½ years, the longest in two decades, and is set to hit six years.

Surely some idle government lands could be used for temporary housing, for those on the public housing list who have waited more than the promised three years. This won’t solve the housing shortage, of course, which requires a multipronged approach. But every little bit helps.