A view of the units at a purpose-built isolation facility for Covid-19 patients in Fanling, on March 18. Photo: Felix Wong
Lucy Kwan and Alexis Wong
Lucy Kwan and Alexis Wong

How makeshift isolation hospitals can offer a temporary solution to Hong Kong’s housing shortage

  • The thousands of cubicles speedily built to isolate Covid-19 patients are due to be decommissioned once the fifth wave is under control
  • But repurposing these ready-made units for those awaiting public housing would have a far greater social benefit, as well as reducing waste and cost
Hong Kong’s long-lamented housing shortage and cramped living spaces, particularly acute in subdivided flats, are the root of most of our social and health problems. The fifth wave of Covid-19 has found more of its victims in multistorey estates and overladen elderly homes in urban neighbourhoods than in the less-densely-populated areas.

With Beijing’s support, Hong Kong has put up some 3,000 prefabricated isolation and treatment cubicles, with about 10,000 beds, across five locations in the span of a few weeks. More are on the way to make up a total of around 17,000 cubicles across seven locations, mostly in the New Territories.

Most of these so-called fangcang, or “square cabin”, hospitals will be decommissioned once the epidemic is under control. We believe that, with the willpower and dedication of the local government and public, plus the many laudable volunteers and NGOs, we will in time tame the virus and resume normal life.

Thus, in due course, the decommissioned cubicles could be reused as transitional accommodation to help ease the need for more public housing.

With their modular design (some could also be drawn from the abundant supply of used 6-metre standard shipping containers), these cubicles can be refitted with sanitary, kitchenette and plumbing facilities.

They could either remain in their present locations or be conveniently lifted to other suitable sites to serve those living in dilapidated and unhealthy environments in old urban areas.

An even more efficient approach would be to stack them up to form multistorey (say, up to four) dwelling structures with proper reinforcing frames and external staircases. The lower floors could be reserved for the elderly with the upper floors given over to younger people, creating a multi-generational living environment.

Some older residential buildings, like Tai Hang Sai Estate in Shek Kip Mei, have been earmarked for redevelopment, but the problem of insufficient and inadequate public housing remains widespread in Hong Kong. Photo: Nora Tam

Currently, Hong Kong’s old urban areas are too crowded to provide a healthy living environment, particularly in aged buildings with outdated designs. Areas in the New Territories where these fangcang facilities are built, however, could benefit from better town planning and hence provide residents with more open spaces and easier access to nature.

If these makeshift cubicles could be remodelled into transitory or even longer-term dwellings, the need to provide better, more affordable accommodation to many now living in inadequate private housing or crowded elderly homes could be addressed almost immediately.

These cubicle structures could also be used to house those who commute regularly across the Hong Kong-mainland border, including school-age children or migrant care workers.

Attracted by lower housing costs, shorter commutes and growing employment opportunities – prompted by substantial public and private investments as the envisaged Northern Metropolis takes shape – these early movers would enjoy work-life proximity while boosting investment-consumption cycles in the area.


Hong Kong has until 2049 to fix its housing crisis, but is it possible?

Hong Kong has until 2049 to fix its housing crisis, but is it possible?

But where can we find the land to site these decommissioned fangcang hospitals? There is plenty of privately owned agricultural land in the New Territories but many areas fall outside the zoned New Development Areas and thus lack the necessary infrastructure, with no immediate prospect of capital appreciation.

We believe that the landowners, who also have substantial property investments in neighbouring areas where transport and utility infrastructure are already in place, would be willing to share their otherwise idle land to site these transitional housing units, in return for a modest rent for a short-term lease of, say, up to five years.

These landowners would also benefit, as the government would then put in the essential infrastructure and utility connections to the transitory dwellings. Once integrated, the enlarged area, with committed public capital investment, is more likely to be eligible for zoning and property development.

Waiting list for Hong Kong flats next to be tackled

This arrangement would also buy the government the time needed to catch up with their pledge to build sufficient affordable permanent housing. Those already in the public housing queue could also be given priority for these transitional units as an added attraction to ensure the scheme’s success.

The initiative would bring the added benefit of a GDP and employment stimulus when the consulting, construction, engineering and refurbishment contracts were awarded, while the reuse of the isolation cubicles would be both environmentally friendly and save on the cost of disposal or returning them to the mainland.

Patients look out from their units in the 3,900-bed isolation facility at Tsing Yi on March 7. Photo: Yik Yeung-man

With 17,000 transitional housing units ready for dwelling, the government will be able to significantly close the public housing supply gap in the coming financial year. Some industry experts estimate that the necessary technical and retrofitting works could be completed in a few months after the fangcang hospitals were decommissioned, with a ballpark budget within HK$200 million.

Leaders in Beijing have reiterated the importance of improving people’s livelihood. Transitional housing could form part of the top-level design for a comprehensive housing plan, alongside the development of the Northern Metropolis and the integration of the Greater Bay Area.

From housing to health care, fifth wave has exposed city’s deep flaws

Using presently idle agricultural land in the New Territories would make optimal use of our land. Spearheading the dual use of fangcang hospitals is an economically sound and environmentally friendly solution to solve the pressing problem of inadequate housing that has beleaguered Hong Kong for decades.

Antiquated urban areas would also be rejuvenated by a quicker pace of urban redevelopment, creating a virtuous cycle to enhance liveability across the whole city.

Lucy M.S. Kwan is adjunct assistant professor at HKU’s Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science and an executive committee member of the Tanner Hill Workshop

Alexis Wong is a retired listed company senior executive with over 30 years of experience in the financial industry and five years in the hospitality industry