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Tuesday, October 06, 2020, 23:36
Luo’s visit highlights urgency of tackling housing shortage
By Zhou Bajun
Tuesday, October 06, 2020, 23:36 By Zhou Bajun

This year, National Day happened to be the same day as the Mid-Autumn Festival on the lunar calendar. On that day, Oct 1, Luo Huining, director of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, visited local residents to wish them the best on behalf of the central government. Luo paid Hong Kong resident Tsui Tin-man a visit at his subdivided apartment in Sham Shui Po, Kowloon. When he learned that Tsui is currently unemployed and barely getting by with any odd job he can find, which cannot support his family of three and has forced his wife and daughter to go back to their hometown in Hunan province for the time being, Luo said he felt sad for Tsui and told his assistants to help him find a regular job as soon as possible.

This story tells us three bits of information. First, Hong Kong’s chronic housing shortage needs to be tackled from all sides but especially subdivided units shared by multiple households, such as the one Tsui currently lives in. Second, Hong Kong’s economy is now in an unprecedented slump because of more than a year of severe disruption by the “black revolution” since June last year and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused a citywide lockdown since March this year and may turn into the longest recession in the SAR’s history if the pandemic is not contained by the end of the year. Third, Luo’s words to Tsui regarding his crammed home can very well be taken as an indirect note to the HKSAR government on the urgency of basic housing for all households, but particularly the needy ones, while directing help for Tsui to find a regular job shows the central government is willing and ready to help Hong Kong society with some of the most pressing issues affecting people’s livelihoods.

It is fair to say there is nothing more complicated or harder to fix in Hong Kong than the age-old housing shortage, because of a host of deep-rooted socio-politico-economic impediments. The fourth-term and fifth-term SAR government tried to tackle the nagging problem by increasing public housing units, but had rather limited success because of hindrance from vested interests. Besides, the much-loathed subdivided living quarters and their hazardous nature remain a serious threat to many people’s well-being and social stability of Hong Kong in general. It may have been too tough for successive terms of the SAR government in the past 23 years to tackle.

The much-loathed subdivided living quarters and their hazardous nature remain a serious threat to many people’s well-being and social stability of Hong Kong in general

Public complaints against subdivided housing are focused on two things: One is tiny space and the sickening conditions it creates; the other is exorbitant monthly rent, which can be higher than high-end homes per square foot. Frankly, it shouldn’t be so hard for Hong Kong to solve this problem given the fact that only about 210,000 people out of 7.4 million currently live in subdivided rooms, including the infamous “cage dwellings”. The SAR government can easily build enough temporary housing units for “cage dwellers” by converting vacant industrial buildings or shipping containers into residential units with minimum furnishing. The per-square-foot rents of those temporary living spaces can be close to standard public housing. And they pose far less pressure on land supply than standard public housing does. If the SAR government is determined to get rid of subdivided living quarters in this way, it may need just two years, or three at most, to let some 210,000 people move out of crammed living spaces.

Given Hong Kong’s land development constraints, it is technically impossible to provide public housing for all low-income people and the so-called sandwich class, whose income excludes it from public housing but not enough to afford subsidized housing. There will always be some people who have to live in temporary residential units while waiting for their turn to move into standard public housing estates, but those short-term temporary units should not be the notorious subdivided living quarters, which should be removed or torn down as soon as possible.

After so many years, I still don’t understand why it is so difficult for the SAR government to significantly reduce subdivided living quarters, or at least draw up a feasible plan to tackle this problem. Could it be a lack of collective will and determination? I hope not. Directors of the liaison office are not required by law to follow Luo’s example and visit financially struggling residents, but the SAR government is obligated to help all needy residents one way or another. If Luo’s visit on National Day was meant to demonstrate the central government’s care for Hong Kong society, I hope it does not stop there, but instead leads to a greater realization of the SAR government’s responsibilities as well as a living standard for residents matching the city’s socioeconomic status — just like what the central government has done for the 1.4 billion mainland compatriots through reform and opening-up. The central government will always be there to help the SAR, but it is up to the latter to do its best and foremost first. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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