No one will question the great difficulties that Hong Kong is facing. But this is exactly the time to test out whether and how Hong Kong people are prepared to work together to achieve a brighter, better future for all.
The song Under the Lion Rock has the following lyrics: “Let’s put aside our differences and seek our common goals.” The Policy Address just announced by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has presented her government’s contribution to this effort. Some may be disappointed by the absence of any content about political reform, but at this hour for Hong Kong, the special administrative region government is correct in addressing first the pressing issues of the day that the government can handle with relative efficacy: housing and the shortage of developable land, and an economy on the verge of a serious recession. I am sure the government is willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the public about political reform within the framework of the Basic Law. However, this is bound to be controversial, and can proceed fruitfully only when all sides are willing to work within the framework of the Basic Law.
Let us review some of the initiatives the SAR government has proposed in regard to housing and land policy:
At this hour for Hong Kong, the special administrative region government is correct in addressing first the pressing issues of the day that the government can handle with relative efficacy: housing and the shortage of developable land, and an economy on the verge of a serious recession
Set aside HK$5 billion (US$637 million) to provide a total of 10,000 transitional housing units within the next three years.
Invite the Hong Kong Housing Authority to explore the feasibility of redeveloping its factory estates for public housing use.
Accelerate the sale of 42,000 unsold apartments in the estates under the Tenants Purchase Scheme.
Offer 12,000 apartments under the Home Ownership Scheme and Green Form Subsidised Home Ownership Scheme for pre-sale next year.
Raise the quota of White Form applicants for the Secondary Market Scheme in 2020.
Work with the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) to provide 1,000 Starter Home units for sale to Hong Kong residents as the second phase of the Starter Homes for Hong Kong Residents Pilot Scheme.
Engage the URA to redevelop Civil Servants’ Co-operative Building Society Scheme buildings as a pilot program.
Provide 3,300 youth hostel places and relax the prevailing requirement to allow tenants to submit/retain their applications for public rental housing and continue to accumulate points under the Quota and Points System.
In addition to these efforts to increase housing supply, especially the supply of for-sale homes, Lam has offered initiatives to ease the burden on existing renters and homebuyers:
Increase the maximum rates of rent allowance for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) households.
Allow mortgage loans to cover 90 percent of appraised values for homes up to HK$8 million (US$1.02 million) for first-time homebuyers under the Mortgage Insurance Programme of the Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation Insurance Ltd.
Launch in the next financial year two rounds of grants of the one-time living subsidy for low-income households not living in public rental housing (PRH) and not receiving CSSA, including those awaiting PRH, with the possibility of a regularized cash allowance program by the end of 2020, now under study.
While these efforts promise to alleviate the housing shortage over the short to medium term, as well as the financial stress on families struggling to make ends meet, Lam’s government is also looking at the longer term, with a comprehensive strategy to increase land supply through expediting planning and invoking the Lands Resumption Ordinance to resume three types of private land for developing public housing and starter homes: brownfield sites; land already zoned for residential but left undeveloped; and urban private land located in three villages in Kowloon. The government will continue to work on the Land Sharing Pilot Scheme already announced to convert agricultural land to residential and other uses, as well as the reclamation projects under the Lantau Tomorrow Vision — engaging professionals and especially young people during the process. Also, the government will replan the coastal development of Tuen Mun West and review over 300 “Government, Institution or Community” sites to optimize land use.
Few can deny that Lam’s government is listening to the community and responding to it. The community had urged the development of brownfield sites as a matter of priority, and had proposed that the government make use of the Lands Resumption Ordinance. She is doing exactly what she was advised, and more.
I am pleased that the Policy Address has demonstrated that the government is putting much emphasis on nurturing talents, social innovation, and research and development, and is boosting its funding for the Dedicated Fund on Branding, Upgrading and Domestic Sales. All this is important for Hong Kong to build on its advantage as an innovation hub. Also, I am impressed that the government has its mind on the truly needy. By boosting the Working Family Allowance and substantially raising the Child Allowance by 40 percent, by improving the CSSA Scheme to encourage employment, by extending a range of supplement and special grants to eligible non-elderly able-bodied recipients, and increasing the rent allowance, the SAR government is helping Hong Kong become a caring society. There is also good news for patients with rare diseases, as the government is introducing a series of targeted measures progressively to alleviate their plight.
The author is a senior research fellow, Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.