Housing chief tries to defuse fears about cutbacks on building of rental flats for low-income residents
Secretary for Housing Frank Chan Fan says commitment to affordable housing for low-income families ‘has not changed’
Hong Kong’s housing chief sought to defuse a mounting controversy on Saturday over the government’s apparent shift to cut back on the building of rental flats, denying there was such a move even as former housing advisors cautioned against embarking on it without a proper study.
Secretary for Housing Frank Chan Fan maintained that the goal to build 280,000 public rental housing and subsidised flats for sale by 2027 had not changed, even though there might be change in the ratio of rental units and those for sale.
“The government and the Housing Authority’s commitment to help solve Hong Kong people’s housing needs has not changed. Our commitment to provide affordable housing for low-income families has not changed,” Chan said.
Chan’s reassurance came after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said a public rental housing stock of 800,000 units was enough to meet the demand of the poorest families for a certain period of time. She said it was in line with her plan outlined in her maiden policy address to boost home ownership by building more cheaper subsidised flats for sale instead of public rental units.
Her remarks sparked fears the government would stop building rental flats after it reached that target, as part of its new emphasis on home ownership. Lam later said she did not mean to suggest she would scrap building rental units completely after reaching the 800,000 mark.
In 2014, the existing stock of public rental units amounted to 740,000, which increased to 769,000 by March this year. If the government sticks to the target set by a team of housing experts in the Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee back in 2014, the total stock should be 940,000 rental flats by 2027.
Under that target, a total of 200,000 public rental flats and 90,000 subsidised for sale flats should be built in a decade based on population projections. The target for subsidised flat sales was later revised downwards to 80,000 in 2015 due to a lack of land supply available. The target remained the same in 2016.
Chan said yesterday the overall target of 280,000 flats had not changed, but that the government has the flexibility to adjust the ratio between public rental housing and subsidised sale flats according to society’s needs.
“If the demand from public housing tenants to buy subsidised flats grows, then we should increase the supply of them accordingly. On the other hand, if the demand is not as strong, then the remaining subsidised flats built can be turned into units for rent,” Chan said.
But two members who sat on the committee in 2014 said the government’s policy shift to focus more on home ownership had deviated from the blueprint set out back then.
Committee member and urban planner Andrew Lam Siu-lo said the message then was very clear: “At the time the direction was that we should build more public rental housing rather than subsidised flats for sale.”
Lam added that she did not see any drastic change in the social environment that warranted such a policy change.
“The need for public rental housing to act as a safety net for low-income residents is still there,” Lam said.
“There is a large discrepancy between what Lam said and what the aim of the committee back then was. Solving public rental housing needs has always been the main rationale for Hong Kong’s housing policy for many years,” Wong Kwun, a former chairman of a housing group and member of the committee said.
Wong urged the government to launch a public consultation for such a major policy shift.
Stanley Wong Yuen-fai, another committee member as well as Housing Authority subsidised housing committee chairman, expressed reservations over whether 800,000 flats would be adequate in solving all the housing needs of Hongkongers.
“There is no objective data that 800,000 flats is all we need [to help low-income families]. We have to carefully consider whether the conversion of rental flats into flats for sale will negatively impact the average waiting time and whether there is enough demand from families living in public housing estates,” he said.